Saturday, July 19, 2014

Winchester School Board mulls withdrawing from Keene

by:  Kaitlin Mulhere
WINCHESTER — A breakup could be brewing for the Keene and Winchester school districts.
Winchester school board members here once again voiced their displeasure Thursday with their relationship with Keene High School.
Board members agreed with a committee report that Winchester should tell Keene it's unhappy and that it will continue look at other high school options.
Board members also decided to have an independent lawyer review the district's 20-year contract with Keene.
The report comes after a withdrawal study committee, approved at town meeting in 2012, spent about a year looking into whether a contract with the Keene School District provides the best option for Winchester students.
The town has been sending its high school students to the 1,450-student Keene High for more than a decade, but the relationship has often been tense.
Winchester paid more than $3 million to Keene for its 177 students this year.
That tuition price has grown every year, and that, along with concerns the small town's students are lost in the sea of students at Keene are two of Winchester's top issues.
The board also is growing frustrated with what it describes as a lack of information and poor communication from Keene High School.
Those frustrations were especially evident last month, when outgoing Keene High Principal Lynda C. "Lynne" Wagner visited Winchester.
Board members questioned her then for nearly three hours, and told her repeatedly that the report she gave them was essentially useless.
Wagner told them their report was the same one all towns who send students to Keene received.
Winchester board members sent her home with a laundry list of questions looking for more specific information on how Winchester students perform academically and socially at the high school.
Member Trevor S. Croteau said the board has been telling Keene for three or four years that it wants more detailed information in the high school's annual report about how Winchester students are fairing in Keene.
The information the board wants has never come, he said.
"I really don't think they care that we're unhappy," he said.
As part of the withdrawal study, a Winchester team toured the high schools in Keene, Monadnock and Brattleboro school districts. Members also reached out to Hinsdale School District.
School board Chairman Rick Horton said he'd like to see Winchester be able to offer its students a choice of where they attend school. But the contract with Keene has an exclusivity clause that doesn't allow that.
The group also collected preliminary information about what'd it take to bring students back to Winchester to attend high school.
Still, Winchester wants more information before making a concrete decision to stay at Keene or leave.
Some of that information — particularly detailed cost estimates about reopening a high school in Winchester — will cost the district some money up front, Horton said.
One key piece that's still missing is what students think of Keene.
Winchester designed a survey earlier this year to gather students' opinions and sent it to Keene High last month. But board members don't know if the survey ever made it to students, as they didn't receive any responses.
Board members are hoping some of their questions are answered next month, when Keene officials are scheduled to come to Winchester for a meeting.
Besides Winchester, students from Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson, Stoddard, Sullivan and Surry attend Keene High.
But Winchester easily makes up the largest block outside of Keene students, and therefore, pays the highest tuition bill.
Winchester board members say the service they get from the high school ought to reflect that.
"Shame on us for never pushing as hard as we are now," Horton said. "But we're on track to get some information and get our answers."

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