Facing Population Decline, ConVal's Small Town Schools At Center Of Education Debate

May 23, 2019

Karen Niemela (back left) and Erin Nolan (back right) with their kids at Dublin's public elementary school.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

At the foot of Mount Monadnock sits the town of Dublin. It has a famous lake, around 1,500 residents, and one little elementary school.

But all is not well in picturesque Dublin. Its school district and surrounding towns are involved in a lawsuit against the state over education funding.

But the issues facing these schools won’t all be solved in court.

Declining enrollment in Dublin is raising larger questions about the town’s identity and the value of its public school.

 

'Like a Big Family'

If you live in Dublin, there are a few community hubs - there’s the 100-year-old elementary school, and down the street, a bustling general store.

That’s where I meet a group of moms in the Dublin PTO. Dublin Consolidated School (DCS) is tiny - just 50 kids - but that’s what they love about it. Karen Niemela says the teachers know every child.

“It’s not a ‘Well there are so many in the class and I don’t get to sit with them and read with them’”, she says. “That’s just not what happens. In Dublin they sit with the kids and they read with the kids, so they really know exactly what they know.”

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Corey Boyd, another PTO member who went to DCS as a kid, says a lot of teachers spend their careers here.

“They just love it. They love the kids, they love the community, and they love the atmosphere.”

The school has a big garden out back. Students stage theater and dance performances for the town and explore the woods on field trips.

With a lot of summer homes, people may think of Dublin as wealthy, but a third of the students here are on free and reduced lunch.

Erin Nolan, another PTO member, says they take care of each other at the school.

“It’s kind of like a big family.”

Dublin is part of the ConVal School district, comprising nine towns, with Peterborough at the center, that joined together in the 1960’s. Most have their own elementary school and they share middle and high schools. But some say it’s time to close the little schools like Dublin’s.

That’s because of a problem familiar to many towns: education costs are rising and state aid is shrinking.

This is why ConVal recently brought a lawsuit against the state. It says the state should triple the amount of money it sends to the district.

“If the state had to send a ton more money to ConVal, I think it would maybe buy us a little more time,” laughs Nolan. “The people determined to see consolidation are determined, almost as much as we are determined to see it not happen.”

With the help of other local PTO's, Corey Boyd (center) spearheaded a new policy requiring the school board to study the consequences of school closures before trying to close DCS.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Even tripling state money would still leave the bulk of the budget up to local taxpayers. And longterm, there’s a bigger problem: not enough babies.

According to the town report, there were 6 births last year. Nolan, Boyd, and Niemela acknowledge that declining enrollment is real, but Nolan says the surest way to kill a town is to close its school.

“At the school board meetings there are people crying,” she says. “There are people so emotional they can’t hold it together while they speak. It’s that important to them - it’s the reason they moved from cities and from other states: this type of schooling.”

The tension among pro-consolidation and anti-consolidation residents permeates the ConVal district.

Some teachers declined interviews with NHPR because they said the topic was so contentious.

Shrinking Enrollment, Shrinking State Aid

“This is a crisis. It’s happening to us and it’s happening all over the state,” says Karen Hatcher, a selectwoman from Peterborough. She's part of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, which advocates for increased state funding for schools.

She blames the divisiveness in ConVal over school closure on shrinking state aid, including stabilization grants, which are decreasing by four percent each year.

 

“The elephant in the room is that the state keeps cutting funding, and instead of addressing that, [ConVal] tries to figure out how to solve the problem in the budget and make cuts locally,” she says. “It’s the wrong conversation, whether to be closing a school or not.”

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

But for Myron Steere, the chairman of the ConVal school board, the conversation is unavoidable. Enrollment in the the district has plummeted by a third over the last 20 years. Steere says the elementary schools were built to educate 120 students, but in a couple of years, most will have fewer than 50.

“We just literally can’t afford to do what we’re doing today,” he says.

As a sprawling rural district, ConVal has a lot of school buildings to maintain. Some need upgrades that will total millions, and the state no longer helps with these costs.

“The aha moment to me was, ‘Oh my gosh we’re going to be spending more money on facilities than we are on taking care of kids!’ Steere says. “And that really bothers me.”

Steere says closing a few schools and busing those kids to other towns would cut costs and be better for kids academically and socially. His biggest fear is that some towns will start pulling out of the ConVal district and try to go it alone.

“I always worry about the district breaking up because it’s a really good district, but it’s a really big district. It was brought together to make things better for everybody and right now it isn’t,” he says.

It would be hard for a town to break away from ConVal. Any big changes in the district - closing schools, or pulling out of the district - require a ⅔ majority among voters.

But Steere's concerns aren't completely unfounded. Just an hour after I talk to Steere, a group of residents gather at the Dublin Public Library to discuss whether to pull out of the district.

 

Rethinking ConVal with School Choice

The meeting’s organizer, Leo Plante, recently retired to Dublin.

“I’m a former Goldman Sachs investment banker so I have a high opinion of my negotiation skills,” he says. “I think education is like anything else: you negotiate.”

Plante is trying to sell the town on a controversial plan: First, get enough votes to pull out of the district. Then, negotiate tuition contracts with nearby public and private schools and let parents choose which one to send their kids to.

He promises this will only cost $15,000 dollars per student - less than the current cost of educating students in ConVal. So, he claims, it will lower property taxes.

DOE Commissioner Frank Edelblut at an event organized by the Dublin School Choice committee.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Plante's invited speaker tonight is Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a big advocate for school choice.

Edelblut tells residents: if old institutions aren’t working, choose something better.

“Let’s keep bright futures for students as the primary objective, not the defense of premise or system or a belief,” he urges.

The school choice proponents in the room say these bright futures aren’t happening in ConVal’s schools, which don’t have great standardized test scores.

Sitting in the audience, Karen Niemela comes to ConVal’s defense.

“I want everyone to hear this in this room, because I feel like there’s a lot of emphasis put on proficiency and on standardized testing,” she says. “And that is not the only way to evaluate how well your students are performing within your public school system.”

“It’s not the only way to evaluate, but it is a good measure,” Edelblut responds.

Niemela says test scores don’t capture the diversity or the magic of her little elementary school.

What a lot of this comes down to are the numbers. How much would these changes cost? Would it actually save money to pull out of the district or close a school?

When it comes to the math, the Dublin PTO recently had a victory. Led by Corey Boyd and her father, residents got a local warrant article passed that requires their school board to assess all the impacts - financial, educational, and social - before it closes any schools.

Boyd says this won't end the consolidation debate, but, like a favorable ruling in the Conval lawsuit, it might buy Dublin more time.