By RUSSELL JONES
After spending the past year gathering data, conducting surveys, holding community forums and focus groups, and hours of internal discussion, the Otter Valley Planning Task Force met Monday night with a select group of 20 community members from the five district towns to discuss a three-phase plan to effectively manage the school district’s declining enrollment.
The task force was started in January of 2018 with the mission of providing high quality equitable education to all OVUU students at the most effective cost. Coming up with a plan, however, hasn’t been easy.
“With all the information (we’ve gathered), we had to start talking about planning, which is a conversation no one really wants to have,” said task force chair Greg Bernhardt. “Even as a group, we kind of talked around the subject because it’s about change, if certain triggers are met, and nobody wants to talk about change.”
Weighing the qualities they found from the community, such as community cohesion and values, against factors such as facilities, staffing and declining student enrollment, the task force acknowledged how difficult the challenge had been.
“The concept we wanted to present was just to keep everything as it is, but with declining enrollment and facility maintenance (we couldn’t),” said Alyson Popa, communications director for the task force, who noted that deferred maintenance of your own house, furnace repair or driveway comes at a cost. “So even a no-change plan comes with taxpayer investment. It came down to how to prioritize those dollars to the most important places.”
That said, the task force presented its three-phase plan, which will be tweaked once more before being presented to the district school board:
In phase one of the plan, which would be implemented over the next two years, the district would promote more school choice for parents wanting new options for their children. To go along with that, the district will seek to maximize the transportation options available to keep bus travel times for students to a minimum.
The district would also be asked to implement “school viability” guidelines that would determine when a school is too small (number of students) or too large to function effectively. The task force did not have a pre-determined set of guidelines, but sought community input from the group assembled.
“I think per-pupil spending would be how you would have to look at it,” said Brandon selectman Doug Bailey, who then added that because of the differing class sizes of the schools it would still be tricky. “You could do it by a difference of district average, maybe 25 percent over the district average could be a trigger.”
Others at the table felt that there should be better ways to make a determination on school viability.
“I think it should be about the number of kids,” said Bill Moore, Brandon resident and recreation department head. “That’s what we’re dealing with here, that’s the product.”
The discussion continued with no definitive guidelines determined.
The second phase would kick in between the next two and four years and would involve moving the Brandon and Pittsford school placement lines to address the over-population at Neshobe Elementary School and the under-population at Lothrop Elementary.
“It’s kind of like a game of Jenga, you move one piece and the whole thing shifts,” said task force member Mark Raishart. “We are trying to maximize opportunities and alleviate pressure in other buildings by moving pieces around.”
Moving the placement lines would cause some children who currently go to Neshobe to shift to Lothrop, which task force members said they understand would make some parents uncomfortable.
Phase three of the plan, four to six years in the future, would be the biggest change from the current system, and likely the most unpopular. It would involve moving towards a true middle school model. That would mean children from grades 5th through 8th, or perhaps 6th through 8th, would be moved to a dedicated middle school facility.
This would involve some construction, such as a separate wing built off the current OVUHS building, or if the middle school were located in a currently utilized building, then the district could get by with building a new gym to handle middle school needs.
A consequence of moving all the middle school age children to a dedicated middle school, however, is that it would likely mean the end of the Sudbury school, which is currently used as a Grade 5-6 school for area children.
“We don’t have a post office, we don’t have a store, the only thing that unifies that town is the school,” said Sudbury resident Larry Rowe. “It’s like the last straw. That’s not a factor that is necessarily going to negate anything, but that is the reality of where we stand.”
And it’s not only Sudbury that could be affected by such a move. Depending on how the district choose to set the school viability guidelines, moving middle school children out of current elementary schools could drop the enrollment enough to meet those triggers, forcing a small school to close because of its loss of viability.
“We recognize that at some point we may need to consider a (consolidated district) K-4 elementary school due to the projected enrollment decline,” Bernhardt said. “At this time we are not recommending that.”
The task force will take all the input it received on Monday night and regroup and refocus their plan before they present it to the school board, most likely in June. The board would then have public discussion and would have to approve the plan before any of it could take effect.
The next meeting of the school board is Wednesday, May 1, 7 p.m. at the Sudbury School.