By KATHRYN FLAGG
LEICESTER/SALISBURY — Representatives from Leicester and Salisbury converged last week to test the waters for a possible merger of the two Addison County towns’ schools.
A new study committee — comprised of some school board members, community residents, selectmen and parents — met for the first time last Wednesday at the Salisbury Community School to discuss, in broad strokes, how best the two communities can explore options for a merger.
The study group is still in what Leicester school board member Matt Brush called a “fact finding” stage. For the Leicester Central School, the new joint study committee marks the latest attempt to make sense of the school’s options moving forward.
Earlier this year, Leicester school officials — faced with an ailing 50-year-old building — were weighing the prospect of major systems renovations in addition to possible mergers with schools in Salisbury or Whiting. A third choice would be to close its doors and allow parents “school choice” in tuitioning Leicester students out to neighboring schools.
Whiting, at the time, was similarly faced with the prospect of necessary repairs. In particular, the school’s septic system was in terrible shape and needed to be pumped every two weeks.
But according to Brush, after about a half dozen meetings this spring with the Leicester representatives, the Whiting school board decided not to pursue any changes to their current educational system.
Whiting school officials also learned earlier this month that Whiting had been allocated $100,000 in federal economic stimulus funding for septic repairs at the town school through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Now, Brush said that a partnership between Salisbury and Leicester might be a good fit for the two towns.
Salisbury Community School currently operates in a building built for around 175 students. The school’s enrollment is just over 100 pupils. A partnership with Leicester would add around 65 students to the equation.
Salisbury’s per pupil cost has been at the high end of the town’s comfort level, Brush said, and the school wants to keep its education model of single-grade classrooms. If the school were to see much of a drop in enrollment, that might not be possible.
“I think the town overall is interested,” Brush said. “I think it could be a great educational model for both towns if (a merger) were to happen.
“Their per pupil cost has been at the high end of their comfort level,” Brush said. “They want to keep their educational model, which is single-grade classrooms.
Despite the two towns’ close proximity, last Wednesday’s meeting focused on a roundtable discussion about some of the obstacles Leicester and Salisbury would potentially face if they decided to move toward a school merger. The two schools currently fall in different supervisory unions. To Brush’s knowledge, no other schools in the state have merged across supervisory union lines.
Challenges would include sorting out transportation and special education funding questions.
Wednesday’s meeting was also attended by three state legislators — Sen. Claire Ayre, D-Weybridge; Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes; and Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton. Salisbury school board chair John Nuceder welcomed their attendance.
“We are very encouraged that three legislators took their time to come to our meeting,” Nuceder said. “I thought that was very proactive on their part.”
It was on Clark’s suggestion that the study committee will be meeting with the Department of Education in July to hash out questions about how a possibly partnership between the two schools might move forward. Clark is on the House Education committee.
For Leicester’s part, the discussions with Salisbury are part of what Brush said was a necessary investigation into “all of the options” before the school makes any hard and fast decisions about its own aging facility.
“We know in Leicester that we have to do some facility upgrades in the near future (to keep the school running),” Brush said. Heating system repairs in particular would be expensive. “The burden would be on the Leicester residents, and our per pupil costs are already high. Any sort of additional expenses could put us over the edge, if you will.”
In exploring options for a merger with a neighboring town, he went on, the Leicester board is working both for the interests of the town and its students.
Now, as the Salisbury/Leicester planning group moves forward, the group is compiling questions to take to the state and separate supervisory unions about how a cross-district merger might work. The eventual goal is to present residents in both towns — perhaps as early as this fall — with a picture of what a joint school might look like.
For its part, Nuceder said the Salisbury school board is committed to exploring all of the options. His priorities are keeping the tax rate low, providing a good education for Salisbury students, and avoiding multi-age classrooms — all things that could potentially be achieved by opening the school’s doors to Leicester.
Leicester Selectman and Salisbury School employee Diane Benware, who attended last week’s meeting, said her sense is that Leicester is moving cautiously now after seeing other potential mergers break down.
Talk about a tri-town school in Leicester, Sudbury and Whiting fell apart earlier this year after Sudbury voters balked at funding further investigation of a merger.
But Benware said she the thinks a partnership between Salisbury and Leicester could work well.
“They’re two small schools. They’re two neighboring towns,” Benware said. “I think that consolidating smaller schools is the way of the future.”
The study committee will meet again this week on Tuesday, June 30, at the Salisbury School at 6:30 p.m. to draft questions to take to the Department of Education.