School Facilities Committee Reviews its Research

Louise Duys, a first-grade teacher and community member, paused over a sheet of newsprint, her felt-tip pen hovering in the air, as she listed the bullet points for her subcommittee’s research. “I don’t want to make any spelling errors,” she said with a smile.

The Derry Cooperative School District Facilities Study Committee met for the last time before a summer hiatus Wednesday, June 24, at West Running Brook Middle School. Members of six subgroups presented their research to the rest of the group, with an eye on consolidating the main points.

John Moody, facilitator, gave a few guidelines before the subgroups broke off. Duys and parents Sheri Gayer and Mike Lawrence moved to a corner of the room, where they huddled over Duys’ flow chart and two laptops.

Their group was tasked with exploring the option of “do nothing” or “status quo.” In a PowerPoint presentation they called this “If It Isn’t Broke, Why Fix It?”

“We’re defending the position of ‘it stays the same,’” Lawrence said.

Gayer said, “The thesis is, what is currently being done is working.”

The group had four main points, summarized by Duys on the poster:

• The current school facilities meet the School Board recommended class size.

• The schools are situated in neighborhoods and help create a sense of community, while reducing transportation costs.

• It’s fiscally responsible to keep Special Education in the district as much as possible.

• The health of the schools meets the expectations for a safe and healthy learning environment.

Gayer said Lawrence created a flow chart and uploaded it to Google Docs, and they each added their suggestions.

After the breakout sessions, the six groups went to the West Running Brook cafeteria, where they taped their posters to the wall and Moody addressed each topic.

He first warned them that the School Board would make the final decision. “It’s best not to say ‘We recommend to the board’ or ‘We suggest to the board,’” Moody said. “It’s better to say, ‘These are the options we explored. These are things you might want to consider.’”

The groups explored the following options: Group A, “status quo;” Group B, redistricting; Group C, restructuring, such as having all of one age group in one building; Group D, closing a school; Group E, “other” and Group F, an analysis of the physical plant and facilities.

Moody described the first group as “it is what it is.” But that doesn’t mean the district doesn’t adapt, he added, saying, “You do react to the changing dynamics.”

“It’s important for people to see what the ‘status quo’ is,” community member Noreen Taber said.

The “status quo” doesn’t rule out change, Moody said, noting that since the last chart of building usage was made, the district added a classroom at Derry Village Elementary School and removed a kindergarten session at Barka Elementary School.

Special education teacher Meg Morse-Barry asked Moody, “Can the demands of the classroom be included in there? It’s not 35 students sitting at desks any more.”

They can, Moody said, but it may not make a difference. “There will always be people who say, ‘When I was a kid we walked to school uphill both ways.’ You’re not going to change their minds,” he said.

Option B, redistricting, is a possibility. But it’s a “complicated, emotional experience,” Moody said. “There are busing issues, the issue of ‘neighborhood’ schools. People say, ‘My father went to school here, my brother went here.’” But eventually everyone adjusts, Moody added, noting, “It just takes longer for some people.”

Restructuring, or Option C, is also a possibility. That group looked at consolidating all pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and first-grade classes in one building for the entire district. The drawback is that 32 classrooms would be needed, and no district school is that large.

But group members noted that this option would work for at-risk children. In other districts, at-risk students who were “floundering” got the support they needed and were on grade level by third grade, because the services were available for them.

Option D, closing a school, had a similar impact to restructuring, with a strong effect on the community. Considerations, the team members said, included what the cost savings would be and whether the building would be marketable.

The fifth group looked at other ramifications, including population and technology. “The other communities handled all but three of our issues,” subgroup member Deb Covino said.

Covino said this group looked at the population of Derry, which has peaked, instead of school population. They also looked at technology and noted some inconsistencies regarding tech accessibility across the district. “To address the best practices, the district needs to review its policy for providing students with technology,” she said.

Their third item was looking at the possible sale of the School Administrative Unit (SAU) office.

Group F looked at the facilities and physical plant. Subgroup member George Klauber said there are currently no spaces in any of the buildings that are not being used.

“If consolidation is considered, it can only be achieved by larger class sizes,” Klauber said.

Klauber said all the schools meet current building codes and are ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant.

The best option for selling any building is the SAU office on North Main Street, Klauber said. It is the most marketable and would bring in some revenue.

While the Facilities Committee will not advise the district to restructure, redistrict or close a school, Moody said some recommendations can be made. It makes sense for the district to establish a permanent Facilities Committee, with quarterly meetings, to keep tabs on building use and needs, he said.

He also wants to make sure the board updates its enrollment projections on an annual basis. Klauber added that he’d like to see an annual facilities report.

Moody said, “No matter what the board does down the road, it should be clearly communicated to the community, both the options and impact. Saying, ‘We made a decision and now we’re going to explain what we did’ is a bad idea.”

Moody urged the members to make their research as clear as possible, noting it should pass the “Demoulas test.” “If I go to Market Basket and give the document to the first five people I meet and one of them doesn’t understand it, I go back and rewrite the document,” he said.

The group will not meet in July; its next meeting is Aug. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at West Running Brook.