April 23, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
LEICESTER — With 64 students enrolled this academic year, Leicester Central School is more than twice the size of neighboring elementary schools in Whiting and Sudbury, which have tentatively planned to merge in the fall of 2008. Even still, the Leicester School Board is now considering joining in the merger.
“Leicester is shopping for a dancing partner,” said Bill Mathis, Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent.
School Board Chair Dorothy Jerome stressed that Leicester is still in the “talking stages” of a merger, but that declining enrollment was a top issue for the board.
“It’s getting very hard to operate a school, and getting very expensive,” Jerome said. “Our concern is getting the best possible education to the children. Is that truly feasible with one or two students in a grade?”
“About a year ago, the three boards had talked about what they could do together that might eventually lead to a merger,” Leicester Principal Carol Eckels said. “In the meantime, Whiting and Sudbury started serious talks.”
The Leicester board’s talks are comparatively “fluffy,” Eckels said, but the school is, nevertheless, looking at all its options.
The most prominent of those options would be to consolidate operations with Whiting and Sudbury, since all three are part of the RNeSU district. According to Mathis, the boards have been tossing this idea around for the last five years.
Joining forces to create a school of about 120 students — Whiting has 35, including preschool, and Sudbury has 24 — would certainly be beneficial educationally, Mathis said. But he can also foresee some problems.
“Each of these towns has their own independence and they don’t want to be swallowed up,” he said. To assuage these anxieties, Sudbury and Whiting agreed to keep each of their buildings open, serving preschool through second-graders at Whiting and third- to sixth-graders at Sudbury.
But add Leicester to the mix, Mathis said, and “then we have a whole new ballgame.” Such an arrangement would require a whole new building, and Whiting and Sudbury students may feel smothered by the Leicester students who would outnumber them two to one.
The Leicester School Board has also discussed merging with Neshobe School. But the prospect of new housing developments going up in Brandon next year, increasing the student population at Neshobe, has made some board members think twice about that plan.
Another suggestion, less likely because the two schools are in separate supervisory unions, is to merge with Salisbury Community School. Salisbury is in the Addison Central Supervisory Union.
Whatever Leicester chooses to do in the future, it will no doubt have to compromise, Mathis said. All of the schools have distinct teaching philosophies, and for many years, have served as community centers none of the towns want to lose.
In spite of that, the Leicester board is thinking positively and actively pursuing the issue, Mathis said.
“It’s exploratory at this point,” he said. “They’re not sitting on their hands.”