The Avon and Holbrook boards of selectmen voted Wednesday to jointly apply for a state grant that would fund a professional study of the pros and cons of regionalizing their school systems, a decision that worried school officials in both communities.
“What really scares me is the financial aspects,” said John Nolan, chairman of the Avon School Committee, after attending the meeting.
Nolan said he sees the potential educational benefits of pooling the towns’ small student populations to offer more courses and activities, but he is concerned that Avon, as the smaller partner, would be forced to spend more than it does now.
Proponents hope the towns could improve their school systems and possibly save money by sharing administrative expenses.
The votes were not unanimous; the Avon board voted 2 to 1 and the Holbrook board voted 4 to 1 to pursue the grant. The votes allow both communities’ town administrators and selectmen to apply for a grant once the state releases the application guidelines for the fiscal year that started July 1. Selectmen said they believe the grant would fund the entire cost of hiring a consultant to do the study.
During the hearing’s public comment period at Avon Town Hall, Holbrook parent Karen Santorelli called it “strange” that the boards would pursue regionalization after town meetings in both communities voted last fall against creating a regionalization study committee. She said it represents a double standard to heed the will of a town meeting when the body approves a firefighters’ contract but not when it rejects regionalization.
Barbara Davis, chairwoman of the Holbrook School Committee, did not attend the meeting, but expressed similar sentiments in an interview.
“This is what they want,” she said of the selectmen. “It doesn’t matter what the community wants.”
In response to Santorelli’s comments, Frank Hegarty, chairman of the Avon Board of Selectmen, said the article failed narrowly in Avon, and that Avon Town Meeting was asked to make a decision based on “no facts whatsoever.”
The study would gather those facts, cost the towns nothing, and require no up-front commitment to regionalize, he said.
Earlier, Hegarty said Avon and Holbrook have talked periodically about merging their small school systems for “better than 50 years,” but that they have never commissioned a study like the one in question.
According to state records, Holbrook had 448 students enrolled last year in grades 7 through 12, while Avon had 351. Together, they would have about 40 students fewer than the same grades in neighboring Abington, a community with which Holbrook has discussed regionalization in the past.
Enrollment is higher in other neighboring communities, including Randolph and Stoughton.
Hegarty’s counterpart in Holbrook, Board of Selectmen chairman Timothy Gordon, spoke in support of the regionalization study. The towns already cooperate on Little League, youth soccer, and high school football, and the time may be right to cooperate on academics as well, he said.
The potential merger of schools is particularly controversial in Holbrook, where parents have warned that continuing to consider regionalization could jeopardize or delay the town’s application to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for funding to build a new high school.
Davis acknowledged that a letter from the School Building Authority indicated the town could pursue parallel tracks — the construction application and regionalization. She suggested, however, that Holbrook could create problems for its construction application if the town decides to build a school for different grades than the application indicates.
The Holbrook selectmen’s recent decision to ask that kindergarten through Grade 8 be included in a construction-related study resulted in a 10-week delay because the building authority decided not to hear Holbrook’s application July 25, postponing it until the next available time, which is Oct. 3.
Time is of the essence because Holbrook’s eligibility for its present application expires in early November.
Holbrook Selectman Matthew Moore and Selectman Steven Rose of Avon cast the only dissenting votes. Moore said he wanted to be faithful to the vote of Holbrook Town Meeting. Rose said the towns should agree on goals and tasks for a regionalization study before they agree to file the grant application, but his motion to that effect failed for lack of a second.
Considering that the state, which is interested in regionalization, would fund the study, Rose said, he wanted to ensure the study would be unbiased.Continued...