Talks Begin at Derry School District Facilities Committee

They’ve got their work cut out for them.

Almost two dozen people attended the inaugural meeting of the Derry Cooperative School District Facilities and Space Needs Committee on Tuesday night, Feb. 17. The group represented a cross-section of the Derry community, with one goal in common: maximizing the School Administrative Unit (SAU) 10 facilities to give children the best possible education.

The conference table in the West Running Brook Middle School library filled up fast with board members, school administrators, teachers, community members, Parent Teacher Association (PTA) delegates and legislators Beverly Ferrante and David Milz, both Republican representatives from Derry. Town Planner George Sioras, former Fire Chief George Klauber, Joel Olbricht from the 21st-Century Learning Community Foundation and Parkland Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Chris Accashian brought perspectives from their respective disciplines.

Official School Board representatives to the committee are Dan McKenna, Brenda Willis and Jeri Murphy. Jennifer Lague, who is stepping down from School Board in March, will attend as a parent and PTA representative.

Laura Nelson, superintendent, opened the meeting and welcomed everyone. She distributed a portion of their “reading lists,” studies and documents on Derry school facilities that will be available through an online portal.

McKenna reviewed the process leading to the committee. “It has been an ongoing discussion for at least four years,” McKenna said. “A couple of years ago we addressed it with the Long-Range Planning Committee, and more recently with the Facilities Report. The board is committed to continuing to provide an excellent education.”

McKenna added, “We want to be fiscally responsible and we want to use the facilities we have.”

In 2002 the district needed more space, and it phased out and later sold Floyd Elementary School and built Ernest P. Barka Elementary School, along with redistricting. But enrollment is declining and the board wants to see the best way to deal with that, McKenna said, ticking off options including reorganization, redistricting, changing the use of a facility or closing a school.

“We want a recommendation to bring to the voters in the next budget cycle,” he said.

McKenna described that as a short-term suggestion to put into the long-term plan.

“We don’t know what we don’t know at this point,” Nelson contributed. “We’re not sure what that will look like.”

She listed the documents currently available, including enrollment reports, the 2014 Facilities Study report commissioned with the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, the 2002 Long Range Plan, the 2013 Demographic Report, the 2009 Demographic Report, the 2013 Strategic Plan and the most recent study, Assistant Superintendent MaryAnn Connors-Krikorian’s Class SIze Report. Other data will be the New Hampshire Minimum Standards for School Approval and a set of class size procedures still to be developed.

McKenna also addressed the issue of class sizes. While the board made class size recommendations in 2002, in the last budget cycle they increased the number of students allowed in grades one and two. “Over the past few years, we have moved away from that recommendation,” McKenna said.

As part of Connors-Krikorian’s study the board asked for a class size recommendation from the administration, for guideline purposes, and the board has forwarded that to the policy committee, McKenna said. It won’t be a policy but will be a guideline, he emphasized, adding, “We can say, ‘This is one of the options in front of us.”

The administration’s recommendation is as follows:

• Kindergarten, strive for a class size of no more than 18;

• Grades 1 and 2, strive for class size not to exceed 20;

• Grade 3, strive for class size not to exceed 22;

• Grades 4 and 5, strive for class size not to exceed 25; and

• Grades 6 through 8, strive for average class size not to exceed 25.

Having a recommendation allows the committee to focus, McKenna said. “If the committee wants another set of class sizes, that’s okay,” McKenna said.

Board member Brenda Willis, who was also part of the 2002 committee, warned, “We need to have some flexibility in those sizes.”

“Will there be more documents to study?” Klauber asked Nelson.

“These are the must-haves,” Nelson said. “But we will be adding to them.”

Klauber asked how the expansion of Interstate 93 was expected to affect school population, and Sioras told the group there is a link to the Master Plan on the town Web site. “We can pull out a couple of chapters,” he said.

Community member Steve Barry said schools are also nuclei for the community, and he asked if the charter for the district extended to finding “synergistic partners” to share space. Barry said he wouldn’t suggest “just a tenant” but an entity that was compatible with school and town goals.

For example, he said, an educational software company could be a boon to a school. “But we wouldn’t want a convenience store,” he said.

Board member Jeri Murphy asked for clarification. “Would we be renting space in a building with students? Or leasing empty space?”?she asked.

It would be for a building still housing students, Barry said, adding, “I don’t think the district wants to be a landlord. If we decide to close a school, we should close a school.”

Community member James Zaniboni referred to Section 7 of the Facilities Report, in which a goal was listed to be more “community-friendly.”

Barry also suggested using the schools for senior events and programs, noting that all the schools are handicapped-accessible.

That struck a chord with Beverly Ferrante, whose daughter Nicole works with special needs programs at the Derry Recreation Department. “It would be wonderful if she could use the schools for some of those programs,” Ferrante said.

“We need to see these buildings as resources rather than expenses,” Barry said.