Residents weigh district split options

MASON – A small group of residents appears to be intent on withdrawing from Mascenic Regional School District, renovating the current elementary school, building a new middle school and paying tuition for high school students to attend North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend, Mass., despite the projected high costs.

Depending on which of several options is chosen, those costs could reach more than $5 million, less whatever state building aid (up to 45 percent of building costs) is applied.

A second informational forum on the withdrawal process was held Saturday morning to present progress so far and to present projected costs. About 30 residents attended.

Another forum will be held next month to provide more answers and firmer figures on costs. The district’s deliberative session will be held in early February.

School Board member Christopher Guiry, who is also a selectman and the chairman of the Withdrawal Committee, on Saturday presented an overview of the process, what has been done so far and what is left to do.

Resident Jim Downey presented charts and comparisons dealing with several options for Mason to follow in providing education on its own.

Guiry said the objectives of the committee are “to seek a long-term option for education that is more than adequate; improves financial self-determination and cost control for Mason’s educational goals; provides education that is results-oriented; involves the community as is very evident in the performance of the Mason Elementary School, which placed first in math in the state tests; has performance accountability; and gives the town self-determination.”

He added that a change in the way Mascenic is currently funded (the so called 50-50 formula) prompted the withdrawal study, “and it will come up again. We need to look at (Mascenic’s) educational performance, which is about average. We have a fast-growing population. Housing costs in Massachusetts are forcing people to move north.”He said, “The original assumptions of the Articles of Agreement (the contract among the three towns that established the school district 35 years ago) may no longer hold. We are not going to remain a small town. There are cultural differences between the towns” and Mason may have a higher educational priority.

If the town withdraws, it would have to have a new system in place for fall 2006.

The costs of withdrawing from the Mascenic District, including paying Mason’s portion of an outstanding bond, dealing with the loss of state aid to the district and buying back the elementary school, were set at about $1.06 million, based on 2003 figures: $786,000 in debt service and $277,000 for the school building.

Cost to send students to Townsend, he said, based on current projections for the 2006-07 year, are $7,777 per student, which includes busing. There would be about 50 Mason students.

Guiry presented four options: making no changes, establishing a charter school within the district, joining another district and establishing a new Mason district.

Doing nothing, he said, leaves Mason in a district with mediocre performance, a “lack of stay-in-school incentive” and overcrowding. He also said the current funding system “sets a bad precedent.” There are also “limited options for joining another district since most New Hampshire schools are already at capacity.”

A charter school, as a magnet, could still be established.

Several plans were presented: Option 1, to renovate the current school for grades 1-5, build a new school for grades 6 to 8, and tuition high school students to North Middlesex; Option 2, add kindergarten to Option 1; and Option 3, renovate the current school for town offices and build a school for kindergarten-grade 8.

A recent survey, Downey said, indicated Option 2 is preferred, including the kindergarten. Asked about the survey, he said 79 responses were received from over 360 questionnaires, but called it “statistically significant,” with 91 percent, saying they want “high-quality schools” and 82 percent saying they were “willing to pay more” to have it.

Downey estimated the costs of Option 2 to be: renovating the present school, ranging up to $630,000, and building a middle school, $1.47 million to $1.56 million. Operating costs the first year would be about $1.48 million. He added, “It is more cost-effective to build new than to renovate” because of the need to retrofit old buildings to current life-safety codes.

The school tax burden, Downey said, could go from the current $5.65 per $1,000 valuation to $7.63.

“This a business model,” he said several times, “based on a variety of sources, and are only projections. The numbers are not hard and fast.”

Several residents noted that students attending North Middlesex Regional would have to pass the new Massachusetts competency tests in order to graduate. The residents questioned whether current Mascenic students were capable of passing it, and asked if there would be some kind of help for students who transferred, for instance, as juniors.

Guiry said tutoring might be necessary.

One resident acknowledged that North Middlesex, with a high percentage of students who pass the test, “teaches to the test.”

The resident added that “students there who don’t pass the first time tend to drop out.”

Downey, a resident for the past several years and a teacher in another district, said, “Mascenic is not serving us well, we can’t control the costs of schools and can’t set school standards.”