Sunday, June 1, 2014

Middle School Advisory Committee examines options - By Elizabeth Richards

The Middle School Advisory Committee, made up of residents from Raymond and Windham, staff and administrators of RSU14, and school board members, has been working for several months to address issues in the current middle school facilities. Since beginning to meet in October, the committee has brainstormed and discussed options, narrowing the choices to three. At their next meeting, on Thursday, May 29th, (the day before The Windham Eagle hits mailboxes) the group will hear projected financial details of the three options they have selected as most viable.
Catriona Sangster, chair of the school board, said she thinks the process has been a healthy one, with representation from many directions offering a lot of different perspectives as they thought about the issues. “Everyone is keenly aware of some of the challenges we’ve had these past five years as a consolidated district,” she said. Rather than coming up with short term solutions, which has been attempted in the past, the committee has been trying to think long term about what is wanted for students.
“I feel that we’ve been very deliberate with this Middle School Advisory Committee,” said Sangster. “We had greater representation, we’ve done a lot of homework, and we’re thinking long term.” 

Middle school facilities have been a consideration for the board since the consolidation of the school district five years ago. In June 2010, an application was made to the Department of Education (DOE) for a new middle school. In May of 2011, the district was notified that it was placed 42nd out of 71 applications in terms of priority. Only six schools were chosen for building projects, and it is estimated that it could be more than 20 years before RSU14 gets DOE construction support.

In 2011, a proposal to close Jordan-Small Middle School (JSMS) in Raymond failed a board vote. In 2012, a proposal to redistrict the schools also failed in a board vote. In fall of 2013, the MSAC was formed. Their goal is “to investigate and consider additions and/or renovations to Windham Middle School and Jordan-Small Middle School and to compare any possible changes to existing middle schools to that of a new and consolidated middle school that supports high performing middle level educational programming,” according to a recent flyer put out by the committee.

The committee has met monthly, with the exception of April 2014, since October. They began with an organizational meeting, including a review of the history and what they were charged with doing. In November, the committee conducted site walks of both JSMS and Windham Middle School (WMS), and discussed the issues in each building. In December, architect Lyndon Keck of PDT Architects provided an overview of the schools. 

January brought brainstorming of many different scenarios and possibilities, and in February the 11 options that resulted from the brainstorming were reduced to seven. In March, the seven options were discussed further, and an eighth option emerged. At that meeting, the committee created guiding principles to follow, and narrowed the field to three choices to explore in greater detail.

The three top options that have emerged are to renovate JSMS and build a new WMS; to build a new RSU14 consolidated middle school on the Windham campus; and to shift grades among schools and build a new consolidated middle school on the Windham campus.

Throughout the process, Sangster said, the committee has been aware of the potential issues that could arise. “We’ve been thinking about the political downsides and trying to make a thoughtful plan that presents the good sides, the challenges and solutions,” she said.

Raymond resident and member of the Raymond Board of Selectmen Teresa Sadak is concerned about some of those challenges, in particular the funding aspects. Building a school without state funding is a tremendous financial burden that the towns can’t bear, she said. She said the schools are already cutting back on everything, from staff to supplies. “How do you think people are going to pay for a school when they can’t pay for the other stuff?” she asked. “The money you can put into the schools is a lot cheaper than a brand new school,” she added. 

Sadak is so concerned about the options being presented, all of which include new construction, that she has begun a petition to dissolve the RSU. This is a long process she said, and she is deliberately taking is slow. “I’m trying to exhaust every other opportunity first,” she said.

Sadak feels that the best options are those that look at utilizing the buildings already in place in the most effective ways. “Jordan Small Middle School is underutilized,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want to see construction when there is already space going unused. 

Part of the issue, she said, is ineffective consolidation. “We are not Windham and Raymond anymore, we are RSU14,” she said. “We have all these buildings that aren’t being used fully. We need to take Windham and Raymond off the map. If that means sending kids to Raymond, then you do it.” 

Sangster said that WMS is not viable for the future due to the condition of the building. JSMS is not in the same state, she said, and there are opportunities to renovate there. The overall goal in any new construction, she said, would be to build something that will last and can be modified as needed in the future.

School board member Kate Brix acknowledged that there is a lot of emotion around the issues, for a number of reasons. She said that having two towns involved complicates the issues. Financially speaking, Brix said putting the required money into a middle school with declining enrollment doesn’t make sense. When talking about building there are many considerations, she said, such as where to put it, and are people willing to spend the money. The best the committee can do is to determine the best choices and present them to the board, doing what they think is best for the community as a whole, she said. 

Sangster said the committee is not at a point where final decisions are being made. The role of the MSAC is to think through all the options and present their recommendations to the school board, she said. From there, the board makes a decision on how to move forward. Recommendations will include having opportunities for public input, since ultimately the decision is in the hands of the voting public, Sangster said.

At the meeting on May 29th, the committee will be presented with some more detailed information on the financial aspects of the top three choices, and the hope is they will have a plan to present to the school board following that meeting, said Sangster. It’s likely, she said, that the committee won’t present one solution to consider, but will give the board more than one choice to consider.

Brix has created four infographics that were sent out via the school listserves to any parent who signed up to be on the email lists. This information was also sent to school board members, staff, the Windham Town Council, the Board of Selectmen in Raymond, the Chamber of Commerce, and a child care liaison. Additionally, Superintendent Sandy Prince included the latest infographic in his quarterly newsletter, the LINK. Minutes for all of the meetings, and video of the informational sessions held with staff are available on the RSU14 website.

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