With two important decisions on the horizon – the recommendations of the Addition and Withdrawal of Grades and the District Dissolution Committees – the editorial board thought it prudent to publish an article chronicling the various referenda on the district’s educational direction to supply, particularly to newcomers to the town, some historical perspective.
In 1964, simultaneous referenda in the Towns of Chaplin, Hampton and Scotland approved the formation of Regional District #11 to educate students in junior and senior high school. Prior to that, each town educated students in kindergarten through grade 8 at their respective elementary schools and tuitioned students in grades 9-12 to Windham High School. Cost and space concerns prompted tri-town officials to research the possibility of establishing a school district, and in 1967, Parish Hill Middle/High School, built on 60.4 acres donated expressly for that purpose, opened its doors to 317 students in grades 7-12.
Two decades later, an informal committee of school officials and residents from Hampton and Chaplin met to consider district expansion due to a perceived lack of communication and cooperation among the district’s schools. Their unanimous endorsement of regional governance led the RD#11 board to establish a formal committee to study eliminating the local school boards and delegating the responsibilities of educating K-12 students to the regional board. In a 5-4 decision, the committee recommended full regionalization; however, the proposal decidedly failed at an April, 1987 tri-town referendum with a cumulative total of 162-562.
While plans to fully regionalize never materialized, the region’s existence was threatened when the accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, placed Parish Hill on “warning” status in 1997, largely due to facility issues. In response, the RD#11 board established a building committee to develop a plan to address NEASC’s concerns. Their recommendation: to construct a new building at a cost of $23,900,000. But their statement that “there were no other options” met with skepticism, and the Hampton Board of Selectmen established an Educational Choices Committee to look into alternatives to a costly building project. After touring several schools and interviewing local superintendents, the committee reported that there was ample space in area schools to accommodate all of the district’s students, with broader curricular and extra-curricular offerings, and a cost savings of approximately $500,000 per year. In June, 2004, the RD#11 board’s proposal to build a new school was resoundingly defeated in all three towns with a cumulative vote of 839-1342.
Although changes in the administration, building renovations, and the development of goals addressing academic issues led to the eventual removal of the school from “warning” status in 2009, costs and comparisons of tuition opportunities prompted the Town of Scotland in November of 2004 to institute the statutory process of withdrawal from RD#11. The committee charged with studying issues related to withdrawal determined that it was in Scotland’s interests, fiscally and educationally, and though Scotland residents voted in favor of the committee’s recommendation, Hampton, in a 126-451 vote, and Chaplin, 75–362, opposed Scotland’s withdrawal from the district.
A Strategic Planning Group of tri-town officials formed in March of 2005 to explore expanding the district to include other towns with the goal of building a new high school to accommodate a minimum of 400 students. With the assistance of the New England School Development Council, a meeting of surrounding towns convened in September of 2005, and neighboring Brooklyn, which tuitions its students to Killingly High School and Woodstock Academy, expressed interest in joining RD#11. A team of municipal and school officials and citizens from all four towns met to negotiate details such as site, staffing and governance, and in June of 2007, an agreement to build a high school for 800 students near Brooklyn’s middle school was signed by all parties. At an October, 2007 referendum, all three district towns enthusiastically approved of the project with a cumulative vote of 834 – 274, but Brooklyn voted 2-1 against the proposal, preferring to offer their students school choice.
A year later, the towns instituted two courses of action.
The Hampton and Scotland Boards of Education petitioned RD#11 to form a committee to conduct a study on the withdrawal of 7th and 8th grade students from the high school. After a year of researching educational models, the Addition and Withdrawal of Grades Committee, comprised of municipal and school officials, concluded that the middle school population would be best served in expanded K-8 schools. However, in an April, 2009 referendum, only Scotland voted in favor of returning grades 7 and 8 to the elementary schools, the cumulative vote, an overwhelming 365 in favor to 827 opposed.
After residents in Chaplin and Scotland voted to study the advisability of dissolving the regional district, tri-town elementary and high schools officials, and representatives from the fiscal authority of each town, formed a committee to examine issues related to dissolution, a direction the Dissolution Committee, based on their findings, endorsed. At a November, 2009 referendum, electors in Hampton and Scotland voted in favor of dissolving the district and Chaplin voted against it; and although the cumulative vote was 963 in favor, to 859 opposed, the governing statute required that all towns vote in the affirmative in order for district dissolution to pass.
There followed a five-year respite from decisions regarding the school’s future, but in February of 2014, declining student enrollment and the consequent increase in per pupil costs led the Towns to contract the firm of Milone and MacBroom to conduct an Enrollment Analysis and Space Utilization Study of the three elementary schools and the regional middle/high school, a decision made by Hampton’s Board of Selectmen, Chaplin’s Board of Finance, and Scotland’s voters. The First Selectmen appointed a Tri-Town Study Group of officials and residents to work with the firm in developing recommendations to address economic challenges, eliminate administrative redundancies, promote longevity, and improve quality in the educational system. Based on the analysis of the data, committee members in April of 2015 unanimously decided that the status quo was financially unsustainable, and provided as alternatives: district dissolution, which would leave each of the three local boards of education responsible for students in PK – 12, offering tuition opportunities to high school students; and regionalization, which would eliminate the local boards of education and expand the district to include grades PK – 12 under the governance of the regional board.
In order to obtain guidance on the direction tri-town residents preferred, the towns’ chief officials conducted informal advisory polls in conjunction with the November, 2015 municipal elections. Cumulatively, 563 voters favored dissolving the district, 257selected full regionalization, and 250 chose to maintain the status quo. In consideration of the opinion expressed by the majority of those who participated in the poll, the Selectmen of all three towns sent the question of studying district dissolution — which can only commence at the official request of boards of education or with a formal vote of the legislative body — to referendum in June of 2016, which resulted in a 591 – 526 decision to institute a study of dissolving RD #11.
Meanwhile, the members of the four Boards of Education decided instead to form a committee to study the Addition or Withdrawal of Grades to “consider more choices,” according to Rose Bisson, Chairman of the Hampton Elementary school board. “In order to find the best option for our schools we must look at as many possibilities as we can,” Bisson explained in a statement provided to the Gazette. “Voters in all three towns will be confident that the final recommendation in the form of a concrete plan will be offered after consideration of many options.”
The four boards also decided to develop a survey to glean additional and detailed information from residents on educating the district’s students. The survey distributed to eligible voters in all three towns in October of 2016 reported the strongest support for the proposal to dissolve RD#11, expand the towns’ elementary schools to include grades 7 and 8, and tuition students in grades 9 – 12 to area high schools. Cooperative agreements among the three towns for middle school students, and full regionalization of the district, received modest support.
With an August deadline, the Addition and Withdrawal of Grades Committee must complete its findings and issue a recommendation: to withdraw grades from the 7 -12 model; or add the elementary grades to the governance of the regional district and eliminate the local school boards — in essence, full regionalization. The committee’s third option is “no change”. The Dissolution Committee, whose recommendation is due early next year, will review findings and decide to either dissolve the district, or leave it intact.
What’s most important for us to remember is that all decisions, regardless of the recommendations of the committees, are up to the people. All are subject to simultaneous referenda in all three towns. Committee findings and recommendations will be publicly aired at forums and through the press; and so it is equally imperative that voters remain informed. Stay tuned.