April 2, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
WHITING/SUDBURY — With a new principal on board and a district vote tentatively scheduled for December, school directors in Sudbury and Whiting this week will kick off a series of monthly public meetings to iron out the merger of the two elementary schools.
The monthly meetings will convene alternately at each town’s school, with the first scheduled for Monday, April 2, at 6 p.m. in Whiting. Monday’s meeting will focus on governance, and later meetings will focus on transportation, financing, staffing and facilities.
“What do you do with a building?” Sudbury School Board Chair Steve Roberts asked. “Who owns the building? Does it stay with the towns or not? Or what if Sudbury already spent a lot of money on their sewer system and then Whiting needs a $50,000 system? Would we pay for those kinds of things?”
Both schools have suffered drastically declining enrollment over the past few years, with Whiting currently serving 35 students (including preschool) and Sudbury 24 students. If the towns vote in favor of the merger, the schools plan to consolidate operations in the fall of 2008, keeping both school buildings open, but limiting Whiting to preschool through second grade and Sudbury to third through sixth grade.
“When you have only 20-some kids in a school, they don’t really have an opportunity to socialize or learn from each other,” Roberts said. “That’s not the only reason we’re doing this, but it’s one of the benefits of getting together with (Whiting).
“It’s also more efficient in terms of staff,” he said. “When you’re paying someone $75,000 and $80,000 and they’re only teaching a few students … We didn’t think we would be able to look taxpayers in the eye and ask for that.”
Together, the schools earlier this winter hired Mike O’Neil to be principal, sharing his time betweenthe Sudbury and Whiting schools. For the last five years, O’Neil, who will begin a three-year contract in Sudbury and Whiting in August, has served as principal for an elementary school that serves two towns in Dutchess County, N.Y. For 28 years before that, he worked at a school near Glens Falls, N.Y. His experience in a joint school district made him the perfect candidate for the Sudbury-Whiting job, local school officials said.
“What they had (at the Dutchess County school) was a very similar situation to the situation in Whiting and Sudbury,” he said. The two rural towns in Webutuck School District were 10 miles apart and both suffered from low enrollment. These schools decided to move into one building, closing the other, and they didn’t do much preparing beforehand, O’Neil said.
“I came in just after they did the last move,” O’Neil said. “There were still a lot of unhappy people. They didn’t like how hurried it was. Furniture wasn’t where it should be. Library books were out of order.”
But after about a year, the school started to iron itself out, and now it is thriving, he said.
“I told the Whiting and Sudbury people, ‘You folks are doing it the right way. You’re doing it all a year in advance. You’re giving the town’s folks a chance to ask their questions and you’re laying a very solid foundation,’” he said.
Despite the optimism in Whiting in Sudbury, two Addison County towns that have jointly operated an elementary school have not been very successful. Voters at town meetings in Hancock and Granville last month rejected the Hancock-Granville Village School’s proposed budget, which would have raised taxes on some by as much as 30 percent. As a result it is expected that the school will close at the end of the school year and students will be tuitioned to schools in neighboring towns.
But this hasn’t shaken the confidence of the Whiting and Sudbury schools.
“We’re really kind of in tune with each other,” Roberts said. “I think we’re creative enough to get around problems.”
Tracy Simonds, who served on the Whiting School Board last year and has three children at the Whiting Village School, is sure that with O’Neil’s guidance, the merger will unfold smoothly.
“The main issues have already been figured out,” she said. “We know which schools should hold which grades, we have a joint principal on board, the majority of the people in town are supportive. What’s left are basically minor details.”
Whiting Village School Principal Sue Kellogg, who will retire at the end of this year, has mixed feelings about the merger.
“Personally I’m a little torn, because I’ve been here 30 years,” she said. “I don’t see it saving a lot of money,” — the joint school will only scale back one full-time teacher — “but the benefits, educationally, are going to be very nice.”
Kellogg noted that the schools, both in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, recently began a new district-wide math program called Bridges, which she’d love to see implemented to its fullest potential.
“What we’ve seen of it so far is that it’s a really great program,” she said. But it is geared towards a “normal” class size of about 20 students, something quite foreign to both Whiting and Sudbury schools.