Leicester, Whiting regroup after school merger falls through

BRANDON — In the wake of a Sudbury vote that derailed plans for a Leicester/Sudbury/Whiting community school, parents and school officials from Leicester and Whiting are heading back to the drawing board to chart courses for their respective schools.
A meeting at the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union offices in Brandon last Thursday was marked by a sense of urgency, at least on the part of Leicester officials, who said their school — plagued by a failing heating system — cannot afford to wait any longer before drawing up plans for the future.
“Financially, with our numbers, we’re OK next year,” said Leicester school board member Matt Brush. “Infrastructure-wise, with some of our systems and some of our building issues, we do not have an unlimited amount of time. We need to have a plan for 2010-2011.”
“I would really agree,” said Leicester Principal Carol Eckels. “We can only patch so much. It was really touch and go (with the heating system) in December.”
Brush said that Leicester would revisit all of the options it has explored in the past, which include sending students to either the Salisbury Community School or Neshobe Elementary School.
Leicester no longer has the luxury of insisting on keeping a school in its town, Brush argued. 
Leicester school officials do intend to update architectural plans, drawn up initially in 2003, for renovating and adding on to Leicester Central School building. Having plans ready to go, said RNeSU Superintendent Bill Mathis, could put the school at an advantage if rumored federal funds become available soon through an economic stimulus package.
Mathis said reports he’s heard indicate that impoverished schools and projects designed to bring schools into up to code might be prioritized for construction funds. Improvement projects on the existing buildings in both Leicester and Whiting would qualify on both counts.
Updating the Leicester school’s floundering systems, though, wouldn’t solve the problem of Leicester’s diminishing student-age population. If one family moves out of town, Brush said, Leicester would be in trouble financially when it came to per-pupil spending. Rising costs and fewer students could mean the school might be penalized in the future under state education funding laws for exceeding state per-pupil spending guidelines. In cases where a school exceeds this threshold, district taxpayers must pay a premium beyond the amount required to run the school, with the additional funds going to the state.
The same would be true at Sudbury and Whiting, Mathis noted, if student populations dropped unexpectedly.
One of the plans that Brush said he personally found most attractive was a combined Leicester-Whiting school, but as Thursday’s meeting wore on some Whiting residents voiced concerns about the speed at which Leicester would need to move forward with a potential building project.
“For Whiting, it’s more than just jumping on board the concept of a two-town school,” said Donn Marcus, the principal at Whiting’s elementary school. Building a school in another town, according to Marcus, is a huge hurdle for Whiting residents.
“It’s a heart-to-heart discussion that the community’s going to have to have with itself,” he said.
One problem that Marcus brought up is the perception among some Whiting residents that merging with Leicester, whose student body of count of 60 dwarfs Whiting’s student population of 26, would mean relinquishing control of their students’ education.
Whiting resident Cady White agreed. She said that she’s learned that it takes a long time for ideas to take root in Whiting, and worried about rushing the discussion about the next steps for the community’s school.
“It takes a little bit of time for people to think about it, to accept that concept and be OK with it and move forward,” said White.
That said, White said she’d heard from a Whiting teacher who was “very excited to hear that Leicester still wants to dance with us.”
But time is of the essence for Leicester.
“We’re going to want to dance with the partner who can dance with us soonest,” said Brush. “Time is a factor for us. We don’t have the luxury to wait, to wait, to wait.”
For both Leicester and Whiting, the next step will be to discuss options for moving forward — which include making repairs to existing buildings, tuitioning students to other schools, or constructing a Leicester-Whiting school — at town meetings in March.
Sudbury resident Linda Rossi, a member of the LSW planning committee when “S” was still in the mix, attended Thursday’s meeting to provide a brief recap of the Saturday, Jan. 10, vote in Sudbury that scuttled plans for the tri-town school, and offered her best wishes for the two towns as they move forward.
At Sudbury, Mathis said, the general feeling among school board members was that, after three years of work (first on a proposed Sudbury-Whiting merger, and more recently on the LSW project), “let’s let this cool for awhile.”
The Leicester/Sudbury/Whiting school was initially proposed a little more than a year ago. A new, larger school would eliminate the looming financial burden of the towns’ aging schools, proponents argued, and combat limited educational resources due to each school’s small enrollment.
Residents in Leicester and Whiting approved planning funds for the new school last fall, and gave the go-ahead to a district merger for the three towns, but Sudbury voters narrowly defeated the plan in November and again in a revote on Jan. 10.

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