Now they’re talking.
The Hooksett School Board and the trustees and administration of Pinkerton Academy will begin talks in a few weeks on whether Hooksett will be able to send the majority of its 600 high school students to Pinkerton.
Hooksett School Board chairman Trisha Korkosz said last week that the district has agreed to begin talks with Pinkerton. Chip Underhill, executive director of Public Relations for Pinkerton Academy, confirmed that the two entities have agreed to start talks aimed at possible Pinkerton placement for Hooksett students.
Hooksett board members have said in previous meetings that the semi-private school in Derry is the only institution big enough to take in most of its students. Underhill wrote in an e-mail, “Our enrollment now is 3,111 students, which is actually up a little from last year. But these early numbers aren’t rock-solid yet because some students register and then don’t show up for Day 1…while some sign up Day 1, 3 or 5. Regardless of that, it’s true that enrollment this year is stable.
We were 3,100 last year. Once school is underway, we’ll have a firmer handle on enrollment, including from each town. Certainly, Auburn’s 250 students are an important reason enrollment is stable. Auburn became an official sending town to Pinkerton this new school year, joining Derry, Chester and Hampstead.
Underhill added, “It’s well-known that enrollment trends mean there will eventually be a decline in the number of students coming to Pinkerton from Auburn, Chester, Derry and Hampstead…so attendance by Hooksett students could fill in a projected gap depending, of course, on what the Hooksett School Board decides to do for it students.”
Pinkerton’s enrollment was at its largest in 2004-5 at 3,450 students, Underhill wrote.
Pinkerton Headmaster Mary Anderson said, “Superintendent (Charles) Littlefield and I will start the conversation by talking about a potential process, and we’ll each report to our respective boards. Hooksett will identify what it needs from Pinkerton, and Pinkerton will offer possible solutions but really, we’re very early in the process.”
Underhill confirmed that the first talks will be procedural in nature.
This has been a surprise to Underhill and Anderson. After learning of the Hooksett’s board decision to pursue talks, Anderson participated in an all-day meeting with Littlefield, the School Administrative Unit (SAU) 15 superintendent, and other Hooksett personnel. SAU 15 includes Hooksett, Auburn and Candia.
Underhill emphasized that the talks were exploratory in nature. “Until Hooksett says, ‘Here’s what we’d like,’ we don’t know what they’d like,” he said in a phone interview.
While enrollment trends are down from the sending towns, including 100 fewer students coming from Derry, Pinkerton’s overall enrollment is up, Underhill said. This is because Auburn will come this fall with 250 more students.
Underhill noted that more sending towns could mean lower tuition. “The greater the divisor, the cheaper it gets, he said. “The fewer students we have, the more tuition goes up.”
A troubled history
Hooksett and Manchester have had a rocky relationship for about a year after Hooksett sought legal action to get out of its five-year contract with that city. While Hooksett has been sending its high school students to Manchester for 125 years, board members and parents expressed dismay about the large classroom sizes. This spring a settlement was reached allowing Hooksett early release from its contract, providing it pays a fee of $200,000.
Derry Cooperative School District Superintendent Laura Nelson declined to speculate on the possible effects on Derry children. “It will have the same impact it would from any other sending town,” she said in a phone interview.
“I don’t want to speculate,” Nelson said, “because we’re not even sure at this point if they’re going to be there. I would not want to comment without more research.” Derry School Board chairman Brenda Willis pointed out that Derry doesn’t have a say in whom Pinkerton signs up for a sending town. The sending districts do have a clause in their contracts that allows them to say no to more “random” students, students from districts outside the sending districts. They rejected a proposal for more non-sending-district students earlier this year.
“It allows them to pick and choose,” Willis said. “It takes away from opportunities for our kids.” She said she has fielded calls from parents upset about the selection process for Career and Technical Education (CTE) at Pinkerton, and thinks that “with what we pay in tuition,” there should be more opportunities on sports teams, CTE and other programs.
“It’s a hard pill for parents to swallow,” Willis said. “There are only so many slots.”
Willis emphasized that she wasn’t just speaking about Derry but for the other sending schools, whose students may also miss opportunities if the school gets too big.
“We’ll continue to work with them, and try to do what’s right for our students,” Willis said.
Contacted about the Pinkerton-Hooksett conversations, Hampstead School Board Chairwoman Natalie Gallo said she has an overriding concern that there has been a distinct lack of communication over this issue and she has heard nothing about it from Pinkerton.
She said she thinks that with such a potentially important issue, all the sending towns and their administrators should have been alerted and involved. “I have a concern of adding additional students to an already large student body,” she said. “While I laud Pinkerton’s initiative to expand their programs, i.e. CTE, I question the inclusion of an additional substantial enrollment from Hooksett. I feel this will erode our Hampstead students’ opportunities in both academic and scholastic challenges.”
Hampstead School District Assistant Superintendent Roxanne Wilson said the Pinkerton-Hooksett talks are just the beginning of the conversation. “I want to make sure that the sending districts are made aware of these conversations and I want to be a part of the communication piece,” Wilson said. “I want to make sure the sending districts have the opportunity to see and discuss how this would impact their schools. I don’t want to lose any opportunities for our students, but it is just the beginning and Hooksett has a long way to go.”
While the Chester school board is aware of the potential merger, they are looking for more answers and communication on what it would entail for their students. School board chair Royal Richardson said the board does not have a unified opinion on the topic, but did point out some universal concerns of the members.
Richardson said that while he understood the desire for the Derry high school to seek an optimum population to keep costs down, he was concerned with how 600 more students would affect Chester students’ ability to get into certain classes or participate in sports or other activities.
What if the new students forced Chester students out of desired Advanced Placement classes? Richardson asked. He said he was looking for more communication from Pinkerton as the process continues so that his community can have a better understanding of the potential changes to Chester students’ high school experience.
Richardson also pointed out that while population estimates have shown a downward trend for the past few years and were expected to continue to fall, Chester had an approximately 10 percent increase in students this year. While no one has a crystal ball for future populations, there is a concern about how the high school would handle 600 more students if the trend begins to go the other way.
The Chester school board has also recently been working with the Derry school board to look for ways to improve their contract language with Pinkerton. While the Chester school board is pleased with the core of that contract and the experience their children are getting at Pinkerton, some of the language is archaic and needs to be amended, members say. At its heart, they are looking for better communication between administrations.
Chester superintendent Jim Gaylord noted concern with lack of communication over decision that affect Chester students. He also pointed out that late last year, the sending towns denied a request for 50 additional students.