K-12 study finds little support

A committee studying the full regionalization of the Acton and Boxborough school systems says there’s not enough community support to merge the districts, and recommends calling off Town Meeting votes on the plan.

The Acton-Boxborough Regional School District Study Committee has been looking into forming a system covering kindergarten through high school for the past two years as Boxborough started seeing a significant decline in enrollment. The two towns already share a regional district for students in grades 7 through 12, and voted last year to put together a draft K-12 agreement for consideration.

While the study committee supports the plan as a way to better share resources, avoid administrative duplication, increase enrichment and technology services, and provide additional teacher mentoring and professional development, its members said after months of community meetings they weren’t able to convince residents of the merits.

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“There just didn’t seem to be an overwhelmingly compelling reason from Acton’s standpoint to do this,’’ said Peter Ashton, the committee’s cochairman from Acton. “The last thing you want to do is go to Town Meeting and not have it pass, because then it pretty much becomes a dead issue.’’

Town Meeting sessions in both communities are slated to vote on the plan on April 29.

Ashton said the committee will make a recommendation Thursday to the Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee that the votes be canceled. The School Committee could accept the recommendation or vote to continue moving forward with the proposal, said Mary Brolin, a member of the study committee and the Boxborough School Committee.

Brolin said she is holding out some hope that the regional board will vote to continue pursuing the idea. “I’d like to think there is support for it,’’ she said.

But if it doesn’t move forward, Brolin said, Boxborough does have a backup plan to help with its declining enrollment and fill empty seats. She said the School Committee would restructure the administrative team and look to add more students from outside the district.

Boxborough last year had 477 students, but is projected to have 378 by the 2016-17 school year.

Brolin said like in many communities, Boxborough’s birth rates have gone down, new homes aren’t being built, and the housing market has stalled so new families aren’t moving in.

Mac Reid, the study committee’s cochairman from Boxborough, said the expanded regionalization is the best option, but he agrees that there isn’t enough community support right now to continue.

“I think the bottom line is our committee was not able to articulate any educational benefits for kids, so we could not offset individual concerns people had,’’ Reid said.

Having worked in the system for 20 years, Reid said, he understands the duplication of services and how much more efficiently one region could operate. But when officials couldn’t say, for example, that test scores would go up, it turned out to be a hard sell, Reid said. “It’s not a tangible thing.”

Xuan Kong,  chairman of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee and an Acton resident, said he strongly supports regionalization, but residents had many concerns and saw no need for a change.

One sticking point continues to be the amount of money each town pays to support the regional district, Kong said. The assessment is based on enrollment, which means Boxborough’s contribution has been going down, leaving Acton with a larger share of the cost.

Committee members also said that leaders in both towns are concerned that so much of the community’s budget would automatically go to the schools based on the assessment formula, leaving them and residents will little control over the town’s finances.

In the end, he said, residents weren’t clamoring for a change.

“People said, ‘If it’s not broken, why fix it?’ ’’ Kong said.

Pamela Harting-Barrat, the chairwoman of the Acton Board of Selectmen, said she is disappointed by the study committee’s recommendation because she thinks the expanded district would be in the best interest of both towns. But she said no one came out in favor other than the committee itself.

“This committee did outreach to every community group, but there was no groundswell of support,’’ she said. “It’s heartbreaking. It was the right thing to do.’’

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