Derry residents continued to press for answers, and for relief from what they called under-crowding of the schools, in a public forum Monday night.
The School Board called the meeting to present the results and findings of its Assessment of Educational Facility Needs, a study that began last spring by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association (NHSAA).
Fifty to 75 people attended the meeting in the West Running Brook Middle School cafeteria, including Town Council Chair Mark Osborne; Town Councilors Tom Cardon, Al Dimmock, David Fischer and Joshua Bourdon; Town Administrator Galen Stearns, State Rep. Beverly Ferrante, R-Derry and former State Senator Jim Rausch.
The district commissioned the report for approximately $23,000 last year after concern about declining enrollment in the Kindergarten-Grade 8 schools. The report was researched and written by NHSAA director Mark Joyce and consultant Richard Ayers.
The report has been a focal point for residents concerned about the move of the Next Charter School to West Running Brook Middle School this past August. The Next school was moved in order to accommodate the Derry Early Education Preschool – DEEP, which had formerly been housed in Grinnell Elementary School.
School Board chairman Neal Ochs conducted the meeting. Before introducing Joyce and Ayers, he laid the ground rules, including comments going through the chairman; not being repetitive; and sticking to the topic of the report.
Joyce said his organization provides study services for various districts, including “organizational” studies, Special Education studies, and facilities studies such as the one it did for Derry.
“I will explain our methodology, then the findings, then five different alternatives,” he said.
Joyce said he and Ayers toured all the seven schools this past spring, over the summer and in the fall. “Every employee,” he said, “was invited to share their perception.”
The report used updated enrollment projections from 2015 to 2024-25, which project a slight decline in enrollment, Joyce said.
One of the research tools is the so-called “functional capacity” of each school, Joyce explained. The Functional Capacity uses what is called the “90 percent factor.” Joyce explained that the Derry Cooperative School District’s maximum standards for a classroom are lower than the state’s.
“We calculated it two ways,” he said, “using the Derry guidelines and using the state guidelines.” Using Derry Village Elementary School as an example, he pointed out that using Derry standards the mathematical capacity is 420. Using state standards it is 600, he said. But the “functional capacity” is 90 percent of the mathematical capacity, so using state standards, 90 percent of DVS’s mathematical capacity is 90 x 600 or 540.
The state standards for elementary school are a maximum of 25 for kindergarten through second grade and a maximum of 30 for grades three through five. The Derry School District standards are a maximum of 18 for K-3, and 22 for grades four and five. Using the 90 percent rule leaves flexibility, Joyce said.
Joyce warned that his and Ayers’ research is a snapshot in time and “needs will change.”
Joyce said while most of the buildings are in good shape, he and Ayers discovered minor structural and infrastructure needs such as balanced heat distribution and updated technology needs. Access for drop-off and pick-up are a concern with several schools, he said, noting that some members of the Ernest P. Barka Elementary School community enter the grounds through private property because of traffic.
Some special issues include the move of the Next Charter School to West Running Brook, a move made this summer and criticized by several parents.
Joyce and Ayers listed the five main alternatives as follows:
• Alternative 1, keeping the status quo by reaffirming the Derry standard of 18 maximum, K-3; 22, four and five; and 25, middle school. “With long-term planning you can iron out your infrastructure issues,” Joyce said.
• Reaffirming the class size goals but moving Next back to Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, though in a different section than it previously occupied.
Ayers spoke to this item, saying, “It would relieve the overcrowding at West Running Brook but require some renovations to Hood.” Ayers said the “old” part of Hood could be renovated to serve NEXT, and services like the nurse’s office and computer labs could be shifted to the newer part of the facility.
• Joyce spoke to the third alternative, to consider closing on elementary school. “You would consolidate Pre-K through fifth in the remaining schools and redistribute students and staff,” he said. This would involve a change in attendance patterns, realigning the transportation program, adopting the state guidelines for class size, and an architect’s and engineer’s study as to which building should be closed, he said.
• The fourth alternative would be consolidating the early education, Pre-K or DEEP, kindergarten and first grade, in one central location. Joyce said this is a trend in education, as those students have the greatest transition and need staff who specialize in those issues. That would require reallocation of staff and determining which building would be best for this use, he said.
• The fifth alternative, presented by Ayers, is a stand-alone item on relocating Next to Hood. Ayers said this would necessitate relocating the guidance, computer, nurse, NECC and ISLE programs but would work with modification. It has a separate entrance and could be made secure, he said.
The move would free up the eighth-grade pod at West Running Brook that was remodeled for Next and give the charter high school a more adaptable space that could run year-round. “The biggest drawback,” Ayers said, “is the cost of renovation.”
Ayers advised the board that it should “recognize the needs for long-range planning and commit to Next.”
Joyce said the five alternatives are the best ones he and Ayers could come up with. There are other alternatives, he said, including double sessions and year-round school, but those have significant drawbacks.
Board and community response
Board vice-chair Ken Linehan asked if any other communities were closing schools and Joyce said they were. He reminded the board and community of the emotional issues involved with closing a school, such as tradition and history, and also the practical ones: do they allow siblings to stay together? Are families “grandfathered” in?
Member Dan McKenna asked if Ayers and Joyce had accounted for issues such as the expansion of Interstate 93.
Joyce said, “Many people have speculated as to what the expansion will do.” Much of Derry’s historic growth has been by in-migration, which has reversed itself in recent years.
“I-93 could bring that back,” he said, adding that it hasn’t turned around yet for Salem.
Mark Connors was first to speak in the public comment portion. He asked if there had been a Request for Proposals (RFP) on the project and Superintendent Laura Nelson said there had been and NHSAA had been the only respondent.
Connors asked the board, “When there’s a study like this under way, why would you ever recommend that the School District move three programs within three weeks?”
Ochs used his rarely-employed gavel and said, “That is an inappropriate question. It is a redundancy of what keeps being repeated.”
Linehan said that questions and comments should be related to the report.
Though the report was research-based and conducted by an outside firm, Connors challenged several figures and said that they were incorrect. Nelson said she and her staff had gone over the figures, corrected what was needed, and the research in the final draft was correct. She invited Connors to come to her office and discuss the perceived discrepancy. “We need to focus on the substance of this report,” she said.
“The calculations are accurate,” Nelson added.
Connors also questioned whether the team had an appropriate window of time to fully assess Derry facilities. Joyce reviewed the process, which included spring visits, summer visits when the schools were empty, and final visits this fall. “The fall configuration is what the study is based on,” he said.
Ochs reminded Connors that other people wanted to speak, and Connors relinquished the microphone to Margaret Ives, who asked about the impact of I-93 on new homes and apartments.
Joyce said a recent study showed that growth is stable and that Realtors are seeing a pent-up need for housing. When that need is satisfied and I-93 complete, “we should return to the flow we saw in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Parent Jodi Nelson asked about the advent of e-books for freeing up library space. Ayers said while he and Joyce were reluctant to do away with books altogether, they envisioned a model where books were still available to children, but there were “fewer bookshelves and more open space,” with books in storage and available on request.
Resident Mark Grabowski reviewed the recent enrollment history of the district, saying that from 2006 to the current date “we are down 800 students. How can you possibly not think about closing a school?”
Grabowski also asked about the effect of I-93 on charter schools, which he said are “drawing students away from the Derry schools.” Nelson said she has a charter, private and homeschool report on her monthly attendance report, which is now available on-line, but she added that she couldn’t list these students unless the parents notified the district.
Former State Senator Rausch said the district needs to take into account not only the needs of families with children, but the aging population and the highest tax rate in the state.
He said, “I recommend the use of demographic studies into whatever decision-making you do.”
Joyce agreed, saying having a grasp of the demographics makes some of the alternatives more viable.
Parent Karen-Blandford Anderson recommended keeping the class sizes at the Derry maximum.
Resident Lynn Perkins asked if the report gives any recommendation on reducing staff, and Joyce said that was not its purview. “But if we increase class sizes that’s a natural byproduct,” he added.
The report is available on the school Web site, www.sau10.org.