Board denies Mason withdrawal request

CONCORD – If Mason wants to withdraw from the Mascenic School District, it’s either going to have to appeal to the state Supreme Court, get new state laws passed, or else start the whole, long process over again.

That’s the result of the state Board of Education’s decision Wednesday not to accept Mason’s application to withdraw from the three-town district.

The 4-3 decision was based not on whether withdrawal is a good idea or not, but on procedural questions about Greenville and New Ipswich representatives’ support for the application, which outlined the ramifications of a Mason pull-out.

These questions have dogged the issue for months, and even led the state Board of Education to ask for a legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office on the matter.

Mason Selectman Chris Guiry, one of the leading figures in the withdrawal push, said after Wednesday’s vote that pullout supporters were looking at a number of avenues, including changing state law to allow the matter to be put before Mascenic School District voters in March 2006.

“Seeing if we can get a legislative remedy to our case – that will be our primary response,” he said.

A Legislative Services Request (LSR) titled “Establishing a procedure for a town to withdraw from a multi-town school district” has already been submitted by Hollis state Rep. Richard Drisko, whose district includes Mason. An LSR is a sort of place-holder for possible future laws, details of which have yet to be worked out.

Another possible response is to appeal the matter to the state Supreme Court.

Yet another, more intriguing possibility is that long-forgotten state laws in place when Mascenic District was formed 35 years ago could affect the case. That question is being researched.

“This is not going to go away,” said Guiry.

Under state law concerning cooperative school districts, Mason, Greenville and New Ipswich had to put together a report to show the state Board of Education that the cost and educational effects of a withdrawal had been considered. After that report is accepted by the state, the issue could be taken to local voters at an annual meeting.

Such a report was turned in, but a signature sheet attached to some copies had only the two Mason representatives signing in support. Both New Ipswich representatives, as well as Greenville Selectman Christine Dean, signed but added notes saying they did not approve of the plan, while Greenville School Board member Ernest Hegi did not sign at all.

Further, it appears the report was never officially approved by a vote of the committee. That led the attorney general’s office to say the report did not meet requirements of state law – although the ruling added that the state Board of Education still had the authority to accept the report if it wished.

Mason representatives argued that Greenville and New Ipswich had effectively blocked the withdrawal question from going forward to voters by not cooperating with the report.

In November, the state board tied on the question of whether to accept the report on a 3-3 vote, with one abstention. On Wednesday, after hearing more testimony from both sides, board member William Walker of Campton changed his abstention to “no,” effectively killing the request.

A major concern expressed by Board of Education Chairman Fred Bramante on Wednesday was that accepting the report might lead to more withdrawal requests from small segments of cooperative school districts.

At the same time, the board and staff acknowledged that state law makes it easier for towns to withdraw from Authorized Regional Enrollment Area school districts – in which one town makes the decisions and all towns share the costs – than from cooperative school districts like Mascenic, where all towns share decisions and costs.

Mason is by far the smallest of Mascenic’s towns in population, but is generally wealthier than Greenville or New Ipswich. Withdrawal proponents have argued that Mason bears too great a share for Mascenic’s costs, and that the district does not sufficiently emphasize college preparation.

Mason is looking at various student options if it should be allowed to leave Mascenic.

Elementary students would stay in town. Milford and North Middlesex Regional School District in Massachusetts, which both border Mason, have indicated a tentative willingness to accept Mason high-school students on a tuition basis. A charter school has also been suggested.