Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
“Where are you supposed to put yourself?”
— In 2011, voters in Fletcher rejected a proposal to merge their school district with Bellows Free Academy (BFA) in Fairfax. As a consequence, the district must deal with a steadily expanding school population all on its own.
In order to do so, the school board is asking voters to approve a $1.7 million bond to add four classrooms to the school.
For several years, the school has had to juggle classroom space to accommodate the school’s population. The building is currently one long hallway, with closets and classrooms bursting at the seams to try and fit all of its students and supplies.
“Every square inch of the building is used,” said interim principal Bonnie Poe.
Two years ago, a wall was added to a fifth and sixth grade classroom to make room for a second kindergarten class. The following year the wall was taken out to make room for an especially large first grade class, and a new wall was added to another classroom, splitting it in two.
Next year, the kindergarten class will have to move to a new classroom when it welcomes four new students for a total number of 16. The current kindergarten classroom will become the library, and another grade will go into the current library space.
“We’re going to have to do a little switching around,” Poe said.
Fletcher’s preschool has been held in a trailer converted to a classroom since 2000, called “the cottage.”
“It was supposed to be temporary,” said Poe. The early education teacher, Nancy Hurt, has been surrounded by materials, games and boxes in her small office for more than a decade as a result of the lack of storage in the trailer.
“Where are you supposed to put yourself?” Hurt asked. “We’re bursting at the seams.”
Art is taught in the gym, with supplies stored on a cart in the faculty lounge, and music is brought to each classroom on a cart as well.
“It limits what you can do because you’re not set up,” Poe said.
Storage space is so limited that shelves have been added to restrooms to create storage space for supplies, such as in the first grade classroom where the restroom has a sink, toilet, and stored snowshoes.
For nine months, a committee of parents, faculty, board and community members looked for possible solutions. Last fall, the panel presented three options to the public: expand the school, send sixth grade students to other schools, or do nothing at all.
Expansion was “the overwhelming community choice,” said board chair Todd Baumeister.
The proposal is a 5,500-square-foot addition at the rear of the existing building divided into four large classrooms. Another 4,400 square feet in the school would be reconfigured to create space for the guidance office and for instructors to work with students in small groups or one-on-one.
As of now, the guidance office is in a closet workspace in the library. Students in small groups must currently work in the hallway between classrooms.
New storage space also would be created.
Changes are proposed for the school entrance to allow staff to see who is asking for permission to enter before unlocking the doors. The new entrance would be a safety vestibule in which people entering the school could go through the first set of doors, but would be required to wait to be admitted to the school proper.
With additional classrooms, the preschool would no longer be located outside the building. Having all of the students in the same building would improve security, in Baumeister’s view.
An aging 1988 heating system also would get an upgrade. “A lot of our maintenance (budget) goes into maintaining that old heating system,” said Baumeister.
The board considered expanding the gymnasium to make room for bleachers, but ultimately decided against that. “That was more of a want than a need,” said Baumeister.
The improvements would be paid for with a 20-year bond. The interest rate would not be set until the bond was, but the board estimates it would be between 3.9 and 4.4 percent. The cost would be an additional $74 to $78 per year for each $100,000 of assessed home value.
Tuition option & merger
Total payments on the bond would start at $140,000 and slowly decline over the next 20 years.
The cost of paying tuition for sixth grade students would be roughly the same — $141,000 in fiscal year 2015. However, those costs are expected to increase as larger classes in the lower grades get older. By fiscal year 2020, the supervisory union projects paying tuition for the sixth grade students would cost $300,000.
In a merged school district, Fletcher would not pay tuition to BFA Fairfax, which 90 to 95 percent of Fletcher’s students attend from seventh through twelfth grades. Instead, the schools would have a single budget paid for by both communities.
At the time of the merger proposal, the advantages to both schools of eliminating tuition were discussed. For Fletcher, no tuition meant costs for its middle and high school students would stop fluctuating dramatically with class size.
For BFA Fairfax, revenues would stop fluctuating with the numbers of Fletcher students coming to BFA each year.
An end to the fluctuations would allow for improved financial planning and steadier, more predictable tax rates for everyone, the merger committee found.
It also determined that the initial cost savings would be $100,000 in reduced costs for a single district over the two districts.
However, both communities rejected the merger proposal.
Had the merger taken place, Fletcher could have sent both its fifth and sixth grade students to BFA Fairfax without the burden of paying tuition, explained Baumeister, freeing up space in the building.
“We’d be two towns having to work together to educate all our kids,” he said.
In Baumeister’s view Fletcher residents were concerned about retaining control over their small school, and so rejected the merger proposal.
This term the House passed a bill in the legislature mandating mergers of school districts around the state. The Senate did not approve the bill, but the entire discussion is expected to resume in January.
“The hardest part of all this is the confusion about what’s coming down the pipeline,” said Baumeister.
The other piece of uncertainty for Fletcher is the size of its student population. Fletcher Elementary has grown by 10 percent in the last 10 years, and the town anticipates continued slow but steady population growth for the next 10 years. Housing prices are low in Fletcher, and there are a number of subdivisions with building lots for new homes, explained Baumeister.
However, the board is up front about the possibility that the anticipated growth may not occur.
Fletcher will hold a meeting to discuss the bond proposal on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the school. That same day tours will be conducted of the school from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Voting will take place by Australian ballot from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 27, at the town hall. Absentee ballots are available.