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BMU, Haverhill talk teamwork

Journal Opinion of Bradford, Vermont

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NORTH HAVERHILL—Representatives from the Blue Mountain Union School District and the Haverhill Cooperative School District all agree that more collaboration between the two districts is needed, even if they don't know exactly what shape or format it will take.

BMU School District Chairman Bruce Stevens and Superintendent Rich Pike, crossed the river from Vermont to visit with the Haverhill board members Monday and discussed ways to not only save money but to increase opportunities for students by sharing resources.

Pike said there's a natural affinity between the two districts and there have already been successful collaborations including a bus contract that saves thousands of dollars annually, sharing of an advanced Spanish teacher, and two for two outright swap of high school) students.

But there needs to be more, everyone agreed.

"We've got to do something soon or we' re going to be in a world of hurt," Pike said. In his Vermont district, the state has already been encouraging smaller districts like his to find districts with which to merge. In fact BMU has already spoken with representatives from Orange East Supervisory Union based in Bradford and the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union based in Danville looking for "a new dance partner" as suggested by Vermont state officials.

Don LaPlante, interim superintendent for SAU-23, which includes Haverhill schools, agreed that the current model is not sustainable for smaller districts, like BMU and Haverhill with rising costs and a reduced pool of teachers in advanced foreign languages and math and science fields.

In New Hampshire, smaller school districts are considered at 1,500 or smaller, so by that number, Haverhill is really small, LaPlante pointed out.

Well-qualified chemistry, physics and advanced math teachers are not generally looking to teach in small communities in the North Country which offers fewer amenities than in suburbab or urban areas, LaPlante said.

"A lot of them are saying' forget it, I'll work in Massachusetts where I can make more money and I'll come up and visit you on skiing trips,'" LaPlante said.

That dynamic creates competition between small districts for qualified teachers which could be alleviated if the districts shared teachers and offered attractive compensation packages to attract candidates, LaPlante said.

The challenge is not easy, however, and LaPlante said there are "all these stupid obstacles" that need to be resolved before meaningful collaboration can happen. Among those are differences in state credentialing for teachers and differences in scheduling of students, LaPlante said.

"It's not going to happen overnight," LaPlante said. "It's going to take all the rest of this year and probably next to resolve these obstacles."

LaPlante said one of the first next steps to take is to talk to the departments of education in both states so they can reveal the path for more collaboration from a legal basis and tell the district what is possible and What is not.

Haverhill School Board Member John Rutherford said he was all for more collaboration as it is a way for the districts to save money.

"Money is the driving force of this," Rutherford said. "You've had issues with getting your budgets passed and our taxpayers are strapped." Rutherford then asked BMU representatives how their taxpayers view expanded collaboration.

Stevens, the BMU district school board chair, said he believes taxpayers in his district, which included Wells River, Groton and Ryegate are "pleased" with the money savings but they are also pleased with the opportunities it afford the students.

"What is good for the kids should drive it," Stevens said.

Pike concurred with Stevens and said cost savings is certainly a factor in collaboration.

"We don't want to lose sight of the fact that we want to create opportunities for the students too," Pike said.

Pike also said he sees opportunities to save money and provide better service by sharing speech pathologists and physical therapists and other specialized educators through collaboration. He pointed out that those services are available on a contract basis, but they are extraordinarily expensive and it is almost always more cost effective to have your own in-house staff. Sharing the services of those educators makes sense and he would like to pursue finding ways to make that happen.

There were no votes taken, and no formal consensus reached, but it was clear that BMU representatives and Haverhill officials are on-board with increased collaboration and said they would continue to meet and discuss the opportunities as they arise. The administrators said they would report back to the board with any advances or additional information as it becomes available.

Ed Ballam may be contacted at eballam@jonews.com.



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Original Publication Date: January 14, 2015



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