REGION 4 — A long-discussed plan for a full K-6 regionalization of district schools appears headed to a September referendum but will also require a separate inter-local agreement in an effort to build support for the plan in each of the district towns of Chester, Deep River and Essex.
About 50 residents turned out Tuesday evening at the Valley Regional High School (VRHS) auditorium for the second in a series of public information sessions on the plan that is expected to go to district school boards for a vote in June. The board votes would set up a possible Sept. 29 referendum in the three towns. Voters in all three towns must approve the plan for it to become effective by the target date of July 1, 2016.
The plan presented Tuesday was developed in recent weeks by a committee comprised of school board members, district staff, and some municipal elected officials. District school boards had previously taken the required step of requesting that a full regionalization plan be prepared and presented for a vote — a move that has been discussed in the district for nearly a decade.
The proposed full regionalization would replace a complicated district governance structure that has been in place since the three towns approved regionalization of grades 7-12 in 1948, a move that led to the opening of VRHS in Deep River in 1952.
The existing structure has an elected nine member board of education that governs VRHSl and John Winthrop Middle School (constructed in 1971), while local school board govern the elementary schools in the three towns. The boards come together as the supervision district to direct shared services, including administration and transportation, for all five schools.
The proposed full regionalization would bring all district schools and services under the direction of an elected 12-member board of education with four members from each town, though the plan for a 12 member board would require General Assembly approval of enabling legislation for a 12- member board. Without the enabling legislation there would be a nine-member board with three members from each town.
Board members presenting the plan Tuesday, including Region 4 Board Chairman Chris Riley, Deep River Board of Education Chairman Michelle Grow, and Essex Board of Education Chairman lon Seidman said regionalization of the primary grades would bring cost savings allow greater consistency in curriculum and also provide greater flexibility in sharing staff, equipment, and resources among the three elementary schools. There would be a single education budget presented to voters of the three towns for referendum approval, ending the current system where the Region 4 (high school-middle school) budget goes to referendum, while the elementary school budgets are presented for approval with town budgets at the annual budget meeting in each town.
Board members said a full regionalization would also give the district greater flexibility in responding to decreasing student enrollment. Projections presented with the draft plan show K-6 grade enrollment for all three elementary schools dropping from the current enrollment of about 900 students to as few as 610 students by 2020.
The continuing decline in enrollment has led to some public concerns that a full regionalization would open the door to an abrupt closing of an elementary school, possibly Chester Elementary School, where enrollment could drop to as few as 183 students by 2020. Many of the questions and comments at Tuesday’s forum came from Chester residents.
Board members said the plan specifies there would be no changes configuration of the elementary schools for the first three years, through June 2019, other than a possible transfer of sixth graders to the middle school. Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy added that any move of sixth graders to the middle school would also require at least two years of planning.
The plan also specifies that no elementary school could be closed without voter approval from a referendum in that town. Seidman said closing of an elementary school is unlikely because student enrollment in expected to begin to rebound by the mid 2020s.
Board members said an inter-local agreement would address other concerns about shared financing of a full K-12 district among taxpayers of the three towns, particularly by cushioning the impact of major shifts in the average daily membership of students that would be used to determine each town’s share of a K-12 education budget. The inter-local agreement, which would probably require town meeting approval from each town, was not available Tuesday, but is expected to be presented to selectmen and finance boards for the three towns over the next few weeks.