WINCHESTER — The Winchester School Board won’t pull the town’s students from Keene High School, even though it remains in a stalemate with its Keene counterpart about whether the teenagers can attend other schools.
Meanwhile, several Winchester parents and community members defended Keene High School at a tumultuous Winchester School Board meeting Monday night, saying the city school is the best option for the town’s teenagers.
They also accused the Winchester board of having a bias against Keene, and of not being transparent about the process, not having respect for the public, and not having a plan should Winchester end its tuition agreement with Keene.
“In the end, it wasn’t so much Keene High School versus something else. It was the behavior of the school board that had people concerned and upset because (the board) was seeking to change schools without a plan,” said resident Chris Thompson, who attended the meeting. “If Keene High had called the bluff, the kids coming out right now of the Winchester School would have nowhere to go.”
Winchester School Board Chairman Rick Horton defended his board in an interview Tuesday, arguing that not all Winchester students do well at Keene High, and his board’s goal is to provide options so all students can succeed.
“The piece of it being overlooked by people, including Keene, is everybody is looking at this as an all or nothing,” he said.
The school board believes it doesn’t have to be that way, and students can have choice.
The Winchester board voted unanimously on June 2 to notify the Keene Board of Education that unless it agreed to modify the contract’s exclusivity clauses, which prevent students in grades 9 through 12 from attending high schools other than the city’s, by June 29, the Winchester board intended to terminate the agreement, effective June 30, 2019.
The contract has been in place since 2003, when Winchester began sending its high school students to Keene following a town-wide vote to close the community’s Thayer High School. That school closed in 2005.
The agreement includes a clause allowing Keene or Winchester to terminate the agreement at any time by giving written notice. The notice must specify the last school year for which the contract would be in effect, which has to be at least three full school years following the year the notice is given.
The Keene Board of Education hasn’t called the bluff, but in a June 10 letter to Winchester Superintendent James M. Lewis, board members said they would accept a recent letter from the town’s school board as notice that it was terminating the tuition agreement.
Horton responded in a June 16 letter to Robert H. Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, that the Winchester board didn’t vote to terminate the tuition contract between the two school districts. It “merely voted to express its future intent as of that date.”
Besides Keene, SAU 29 covers the Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland school districts.
Should such a vote to terminate the contract happen, the Winchester School Board would provide notice of termination, Horton said.
Edward R. Murdough, Keene Board of Education chairman, responded on June 21, asking the Winchester School Board to clarify its intentions because he said its June 16 letter conveyed a different message than an earlier correspondence.
Toward the end of Monday’s meeting, the Winchester School Board agreed to rescind what many viewed as an ultimatum to Keene, and not terminate the contract.
Horton said Tuesday that Winchester planned to send a letter to Keene school officials that day notifying them of the decision.
Residents and Winchester school officials have questioned in recent years if sending the town’s high school students to Keene is the best option.
Their concerns have included the rising cost of tuition, frustration with what they say is a lack of information about how Winchester students are doing as a group at Keene High School and students losing their sense of community because they’re leaving a small school to attend a larger one about 30 minutes away.
In 2012, the majority of voters participating in the annual Winchester School District meeting approved an advisory-only petition warrant article to study withdrawing the town’s students from Keene High School, and either sending them to a reopened Thayer High School, or a high school elsewhere.
Last year, voters at the school district’s annual meeting approved a warrant article, 374-269, stating it was not in the town’s best interest to tuition its high school students to Keene.
Murdough said Tuesday Keene doesn’t want to terminate its tuition agreement with Winchester, and has tried to respond to all of the concerns of the town’s residents and school board members.
He noted that of the 10 towns sending students to Keene High School, only Winchester has consistently expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangement.
Winchester is the largest sending town; its 165 students represent about 12 percent of the Keene High population of 1,334 pupils. Winchester also has the highest number of special education students, according to Murdough.
“We’re just not willing to go with less 100 percent (enrollment from Winchester),” Murdough said. “We have 10 sending towns which make up 48 percent of the enrollment at Keene High School. That’s 600 to 650 students who don’t live in Keene.”
If Keene renegotiated the exclusivity clause in Winchester contract allowing a percentage of the town’s students to attend the high school, the Keene board would feel obligated to offer the same arrangement to its other sending communities, Murdough said.
The result would be Keene school officials not knowing how many students to plan for from outside the city, he said.
“The result would be a fluctuation of about 300 students a year. You can’t run a school like that,” he said.
The Winchester School Board has been considering Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Mass., as an option for some of the town’s high school students.
Horton said that the Pioneer Valley School Board discussed having an agreement of some sort with Winchester at its meeting last week.
Winchester has received a draft of that agreement, which, he said, outlines a partnership between the school district, and plans to discuss the document at the school board’s July 7 meeting.
The board will also discuss its next steps to explore high school options for students and the relationship with Keene, Horton said.
“We’re going to continue to look at finding what is best for each and every student here, not just the majority or minority, but each individual student,” he said.
Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.