Pelham, Windham facing high school issues

With the chance of a combined Pelham and Windham high school down the drain, both towns are seeking a remedy to less-than-perfect situations.

Each town has a unique high school issue. Windham’s contract to send high-school-age students to Salem expires in 2008. Pelham’s high school is widely considered to be overcrowded and in need of repairs.

Pelham overwhelmingly opposed the joint high school in the Sept. 14 vote with a record turnout.

“It was a clear message from the community of Pelham,” said Elaine Cutler, superintendent for both Windham and Pelham schools.

Now Windham is looking to build its own high school, while Pelham is still debating whether or not to renovate the existing site or build a new school.

Windham needs to act quickly and the town is targeting September 2008 for a new high school grand opening. The town will vote on the bonds for the school and land in March, Cutler said.

“Windham is pretty close to purchasing the land,” Cutler said.

She added that the administration hopes to reveal the location of the land soon and the town is working with Team Design, an architectural firm based in Manchester.

Pelham High is in danger of losing its accreditation in its current state. Residents and parents have many concerns about overcrowding, fire safety, air quality and heat issues.

“There are way more kids in the building than it can handle. The facility does not meet a number of fire-safety standards. There are no sprinkler systems, and there are dead-end hallways that could become traps in a smoky situation where people were trying to exit the building,” said Lori Adams, a Pelham resident and former coordinator for the Co-op Communication Committee.

Pelham held a community forum Oct. 19, which was facilitated by Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

The residents compiled a list of 25 solutions to the high school problem. Each person was then given five “dots” to place on the list next to their areas of most concern. The facilitator is tallying the results and will file a report to the Pelham School Board this week. The results will be made public.

“I applaud the Pelham School Board for hosting it. The meeting was a good way to get everybody together and thinking about issues and action items. Everybody seems to understand that something needs to be done to fix the problems at Pelham High School,” Adams said.

“The forum was conducted in such a manner that restricted any discussion. Unfortunately, last night’s forum produced nothing more than the same information and concerns that have been discussed numerous times before and of which I am sure the School Board is well aware of.,” said Linda Mahoney, a Pelham resident and member of the Citizens for the Preservation of Pelham High School.

“There was a very strong message to do everything you could to renovate or expand the current site,” Cutler said. “The information we have now states that it would be just as costly to renovate as replace.”

The School Board plans to create an entirely new feasibility report to determine the plausibility and cost of renovating the existing site.

The previous report resulted in a deal of controversy, as some townspeople doubted the report’s conclusion that Pelham High was beyond repair.

“People deserve to see what is best for their kids,” Cutler said.

The next step remains uncertain.

“Ultimately, it will be up to the School Board as to where we proceed from here. It would behoove them to find out just exactly what the community will or will not support, and that can’t be determined from a handful of private citizens,” Mahoney said. “Otherwise, a lot of time and money will be spent without any resolve to our situation.”

“I believe that re-using that site would be foolish and short-sighted, but many people are not convinced of that,” Adams said. “Eventually, I think people will understand that the best solution is to rebuild a new school on a new site and eventually that’s what we’ll do.”