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PEOPLE AND PLACES TO WATCH IN 2011

For 2 towns, school merger goes all the way

By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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The new year will bring a significant change to the Freetown and Lakeville public schools: The district has been regionalized since the early 1970s in grades 5 through 12, but come the start of the school year in 2011, it will be fully regionalized, encompassing grades prekindergarten through 12.

Voters at Town Meeting in both communities approved the move, with voters in Lakeville needing two attempts. They had shot it down on Oct. 18 by 33 votes, but a citizens’ petition signed by more than 250 residents forced reconsideration at a Special Town Meeting Nov. 29, when it was approved in a 206-101 vote.

Those signing the petitions said they blamed the Oct. 18 rejection on the fact that many people had left Town Meeting after hours of debating Sysco Boston’s proposal to move its food distribution center to Lakeville, which voters rejected. By the time the regionalization vote came at 12:45 a.m., 80 percent of voters had left the meeting.

Freetown voters approved regionalization at a Special Town Meeting Nov. 8, in a 185-63 vote.

The transition to a fully regionalized school system should be smooth and relatively seamless, said Superintendent of Schools John McCarthy, and beneficial to students in both towns in terms of smaller class sizes, saving money, and perhaps avoiding teacher layoffs.

“The primary benefit allows you to take the entire resources you have and combine it into one budget and direct them into the greater need of a full district,’’ McCarthy said. “Because the elementary district was small, any cuts there meant significant hits, and some class sizes climbed into the 30s; that was the main problem.’’

He said the elementary level is where class sizes should be the lowest. With full regionalization, officials can direct additional resources to the lower grade levels. The population of the entire district is just under 3,200 students, McCarthy said, and that number will not increase with full regionalization.

Class sizes at Freetown Elementary School and Assawompset Elementary School in Lakeville will be reduced from an average of 26 students to 22, he said.

The district has five schools. Enrollment, as of Oct. 1, was: Assawompset Elementary School (Lakeville), 715 students; Freetown Elementary School, 507 students; Austin Middle School (Freetown), 262 students; Freetown-Lakeville Middle School, 831 students; and Apponequet Regional High School, 828 students.

As important as saving money will be — that could run between $360,000 and $500,000 — McCarthy said equally important will be the ability to direct resources into a full district and avoid layoffs and huge budget cuts.

“We’re all bracing for more cuts and won’t know until state aid figures come in,’’ he said. “The savings come in efficiencies, the ability to use staff across the district instead of hiring one for Freetown and another for Lakeville; now we can share staff. Instead of having three custodial staffs, for example, we’ll have one.’’

Special education savings could be more than $100,000, McCarthy said, because of sharing resources and not having to send students outside the district. And added revenue will come from the state, which gives up to 56 percent reimbursement in several areas of operating costs to regionalized school districts.

Municipal K-12 districts serving a single community make up 177 of the 299 districts in the state, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. There were 31 K-12 regional districts serving two to seven contiguous communities (92 communities in all).

A state education report said that a projected decline in enrollment puts pressure on many districts; since passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993, statewide K-12 enrollment in public schools grew from 879,000 to 980,000 students by 2004, but then dropped to 959,000 between 2004 and 2009.

It said that smaller districts saw enrollments decline faster than others, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that it was “projecting a decline to 885,000 by 2019’’ and that “in future years, it may be difficult for smaller districts to sustain their programs and services in the face of these demographic trends.’’

The buzz in both towns about full regionalization has been positive, McCarthy said.

“The vote was strong in both towns. Both votes passed by more than two thirds, although a simple majority was all that was needed, so I think people are looking at this and saying, ‘We tried it apart and it’s not working, we have to do something different,’ ’’ he said. “We’re at the point where we couldn’t solve our problems separately, so coming together we stand a better chance of resolving them.’’

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe.com.