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School merger plans move forward

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By MEGAN JAMES

LEICESTER/WHITING/SUDBURY — If voters in Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury approve, a new consolidated elementary school could be the first built in Vermont in the 21st Century.

A newly formed tri-town school committee met last Wednesday to lay the groundwork for the consolidation plans, including the construction of a new, centrally located school, tentatively called the Community School.

In all three towns enthusiasm for the project has mounted since Town Meeting Day, when Leicester expressed a renewed interest in joining a merger of Sudbury and Whiting schools proposed last year.  In November Whiting voters rejected the merger, 47-26, and Sudbury approved it, 53-39.

But the proposal Leicester school board member Hannah Sessions floated before Sudbury and Whiting residents at their respective town meetings in March differs from the original plan in one striking way: The three towns would construct a brand new school building in a central location, rather than splitting grades between existing buildings.

An added bonus, Sessions stressed, is that joint schools are exempt from Vermont’s moratorium on school construction funding, so 50 percent of construction costs would be covered by the state.

The committee has yet to determine an estimated cost of building the school, but it wouldn’t be much more than other area schools are paying just for renovations and improvements, Sessions said.

At Wednesday’s meeting the 20 committee members, most of whom do not serve on a school board, discussed other benefits of consolidating schools. With more than 100 students — Leicester currently has 57, Whiting, 36, and Sudbury, 31 — the biggest perk is that the Community School would have no multi-grade classrooms.

“We talked about the challenge in this day and age, when there’s so much asked of our students,” Sessions said. “It’s really hard to teach a class in three grades and get them to meet the standards of all the testing.”

The Community School could offer its students a gymnasium and sports teams, more classrooms and library time. It would also increase their social opportunities, preparing them with a larger peer group with which to enter high school, supporters say.

Taxpayers could expect to save a minimum of $1,000 per student, Sessions said, including more savings on energy costs if the new school is efficiently constructed.

Whiting resident and committee member Peter Weber got involved with the effort after the Sudbury-Whiting merger was rejected last year. Weber, who has lived in Whiting for three years and doesn’t have children in the school, believes strongly that a merger would benefit the children not just when they move into that new building but throughout the planning process as well.

“This is a tremendous opportunity not only as a project itself, but I think we can include the kids to become more involved in it, expose them to the different energy sources we’re considering … the project would become part of their (educational) program,” he said. “We could publish a community blog or Web site where they could talk about what is important.”

The committee is looking for a centrally located site on which to build the school. It hopes to take advantage of green technologies to ensure the new building is energy efficient.

The biggest challenge, Sessions said, will be a slight reduction in staff, though she stressed that staff members in all three schools are supportive of the merger.

“They struggle with limited facilities in small classes, and they’re behind us 100 percent,” she said.

With an ambitious timeline to get the project off the ground, the committee is tentatively scheduling the first vote, on forming a joint contract, for November’s general election and the second vote, on building a new school, for Town Meeting Day 2009.

The committee plans to meet the third Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union office in Brandon, and the public is invited to attend. At the next meeting on May 15, architect John Berryhill of NBF Architects in Rutland will give general estimates for construction of the school.

It’s going to be a challenge to rally the three towns behind the project, Weber said, but he has no doubt it will be worth it, both to the children and the wider community.

“We’re talking about kids here in rural America,” he said. “Elementary school is our chance to give them a tremendous start so they learn to like school.”

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