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January 08. 2014 8:32PM

Middleton considers pulling students from Farmington

MIDDLETON — Officials are heading back to the table to review a plan to potentially withdraw from Farmington and build a new school in town.

The Committee to Study the Feasibility of Withdrawal from the Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) Agreement is scheduled to meet twice this week —Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Middleton town offices — to develop “supplemental information” after the State Board of Education requested more specifics when it reviewed the proposal Dec. 19.

The committee — which includes officials from Middleton and Farmington — was encouraged to submit more complete answers before the Board of Education’s next meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 14 in Concord, according to Paul Leather, deputy commissioner for the New Hampshire Department of Education.

Leather said the Board of Education wanted to know more details about whether Middleton is seeking to withdraw from or amend its current agreement with Farmington, where all of Middleton’s students will attend school, whether there is a plan to resolve any financial holdings or obligations, if any parts of the plan “are dependent on town or district warrants yet to be voted on” and what options are being considered.

On Tuesday, Farmington officials discussed how their district would adjust to the “catastrophic” loss of $3 million in tuition and the reduction of about a whole class of Middleton students from each grade, if the state and the voters both approve the withdrawal plan.

Following legal review, Farmington plans to submit a report about the impact to the Board of Education, which requested additional information, according to Farmington School Board Chair Joe Pitre.

“Personally, I don’t want to see a split,” Pitre said. “I just hope for a fair and equitable outcome.”

After studying the issue for the past six months, Middleton officials believe it is feasible to conduct a phased withdrawal from Farmington. It proposes to send grades 7-12 to Gov. Wentworth Regional School District — based in Wolfeboro — after July 1, 2015. The remaining students in pre-kindergarten through grade 6 would move into the new school, which also must be approved by voters in March, the following year.

“Any construction plans would need to meet fire and safety, building and school approval codes,” Leather said in an e-mail.

Using current state statutes, Leather said the board will determine whether the proposed plan is both feasible and suitable.
Pitre said the taxpayers of Middleton will eventually realize it’s very expensive to build a school — which is now expected to cost $6.5 million instead of the original $4.9 million estimate — on top of the money needed for salaries, operating costs, unfunded mandates or other unanticipated expenses. He added this will have a big impact on the small community, especially since State Building Aid is no longer being offered to offset costs.
“There is no tax base in either town,” Pitre said, adding the area has not recovered from the ongoing economic issues and many residents are unemployed, underemployed or living on fixed incomes.

While the communities have enjoyed a long-standing relationship, Pitre said there are a lot of issues which must be resolved on both sides of the border.

“We haven’t been close to (doing) what we’re supposed to be doing,” Pitre said, adding officials in both communities need to “sit down at a table and make it right.”

Last year, Middleton residents voted 167-64 for the district to study the feasibility and suitability of withdrawing students as some people raised concerns about the quality of education and the tuition rate.
Meanwhile Farmington officials wanted to reconcile other issues, including sharing the costs of Special Education.
In October, school officials formed a building committee to study feasibility of building a school in town on a 55-acre parcel owned by the district.

The committee will present residents with its findings at the next annual school district meeting in February. Voters in Middleton and across the six communities in the Gov. Wentworth Regional School District will separately decide on issues in March.

For more information, visit www.sau61.org or www.middletonnh.gov.

jquinn@newstote.com


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