The Derry Cooperative School District Facilities Committee will present its final report on school district space needs to the School Board at its Aug. 18 meeting, and will ask the board if it wants them to extend their work beyond the summer.
The committee, chaired by former Superintendent John Moody, met Monday at the West Running Brook Middle School library to sum up its work before approaching the School Board. While members agreed that their report was comprehensive and finished, several saw a need to further mine the data they had gathered.
The committee was formed this past winter as a response to community members’ concerns about rising taxes and declining enrollment. It followed on the heels of an outside study commissioned with the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.
While many community members urged the district to close a school in light of the declining enrollment, the draft study produced data showing that it’s not that easy. It’s not an option for the immediate school year, Moody said, because the study showed only 21 spaces across the district are not being used. Of those, 11 are appropriate for classrooms and 10 are smaller units not appropriate for classroom use.
Even selling the School Administrative Unit (SAU) building and relocating the administrative offices would be a challenge, he said, because those 21 spaces are not all in one place.
But the group, board and district now know what they have to deal with, Moody added. “Every single space in the district has been measured by Facilities Director Gary Webster with his laser tape,” Moody said.
The fruits of that labor have been condensed into a 110-page, double-sided document that will not be distributed to the public because of its size and for security reasons, but will be available for viewing at the SAU office, Moody said.
The draft report was scheduled to be submitted to the School Board at its Aug. 4 meeting, after the Nutfield News goes to press, Moody said, and will be discussed Aug. 18.
Moody reiterated that the district will not be able to make changes for the 2015-16 school year.
“There is insufficient space available to close a school at this time,” he said, adding that the documents will be available for reference, should this become a necessity in the future.
“Nothing is impossible,” Moody said. “But the board needs to make that decision.”
Moody emphasized that the committee will not make any specific recommendations to the board, but will provide its data for future decisions. “There are all kinds of factors in play, and they need to look at their options in depth,” he said. “It’s not a simple decision.”
The report will be a work in progress, Moody said, with enrollment data and other factors updated electronically.
Board chairman Dan McKenna wondered if the committee should discuss the data compiled by the eight subcommittees.
But Moody said, “You have the data. It’s your responsibility as a board to decide what to do with it. It’s not our place to tell you what to do with it in year two or three down the road.”
Committee member Steve Barry reminded the group that one of its recommendations is for a Standing Facilities Committee and that group could review the data on a regular basis.
McKenna countered, “We need to have a goal when we get back in August next year. If we rely on a Standing Committee, making any large changes will be painful. Looking forward is important.”
Member James Zaniboni compared the process to building a house. “We poured the foundation,” he said. “We put up the framework. It’s up to the School Board to decide what they want to have in the house.”
Member Noreen Tabor warned that any Standing Committee needs to keep its data up to date, “so we never have to do this again.”
McKenna said, “We need to put all the subcommittee reports together and have a conversation.”
That’s the board’s responsibility, Moody said, adding, “You have the groundwork. It’s not the charge of this committee. Every question asked has been answered.”
“But it makes sense that if this committee has done the work, that they look into the future and see if there’s anything long term that we need to do,” McKenna countered.
Member Lynn Perkins said, “I’m not ready to sign off on this.”
“Say what part you disagree with and submit it to the board,” Moody urged him.
But Perkins said, “I find the process confusing. I don’t think we’re ready to go to the School Board.”
Grinnell Elementary School Principal Mary Hill said, “We need clarification on what you think isn’t complete. I didn’t think of this as something we gave a ‘stamp of approval’ to. I was part of a subcommittee and we did research.”
“I feel comfortable with the opposite of that,” Perkins shot back.
Hill said the next level of work belonged to the as-yet-unformed Standing Committee.
Barry argued for fluidity. “There is no benefit to making substantial changes now,” he said. “If we recommend to close a school in five years, it creates the momentum for closure. We don’t know what the student population will be five years down the line. That will lock the School Board into a position where they have to close.”
Zaniboni reviewed the committee’s charge and Moody said, “We did not abrogate our responsibility. We gave the board sufficient data so they can say, ‘Let’s go to the next step.’”
The group discussed having a public forum where residents could ask questions of committee members, and Tabor said she would only agree to that if the School Board “is comfortable with what we did.”
“We will not throw you to the lions,” board member Brenda Willis said.
Willis, who has worked on other space studies, said, “The last time we did an in-depth report it took two years. This is just the beginning. We do need an in-depth analysis, but this committee did exactly what we were asked to do.”
Moody agreed that the board has to have full knowledge of the document before any meetings with the public.
But, he added, “Answering questions is answering questions. You don’t have to defend anything.”
The group agreed to ask the board for an extension of its charge so they can further explore committee reports and possible options for the near future.
They also agreed that some of their data would meet with skepticism, at best, by a tax-weary public. “When the public meeting occurs, people will stand up and say, ‘I don’t believe it,’” Barry said. “We need the School Board to take ownership of this.”
Member Jenn Lague noted that committee participation had been open to the public. “I will be holding a sign that says, ‘You could have been a part of this,’” she said, only half-jokingly.