As ConVal towns consider leaving, Mason’s experience offers perspective

The Mason Elementary School is the only school building owned by the Mason School District, which withdrew from the Mascenic School District in 2009.

The Mason Elementary School is the only school building owned by the Mason School District, which withdrew from the Mascenic School District in 2009. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI—

The Mason Elementary School is the only school building owned by the Mason School District, which withdrew from the Mascenic School District in 2009.

The Mason Elementary School is the only school building owned by the Mason School District, which withdrew from the Mascenic School District in 2009. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI

Mason children get dropped off Wednesday morning at Mason Elementary School.

Mason children get dropped off Wednesday morning at Mason Elementary School. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI—

Mason children get dropped off Wednesday morning at Mason Elementary School.

Mason children get dropped off Wednesday morning at Mason Elementary School. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI

Student representatives break ground for the addition to the Mason Elementary School in 2009.

Student representatives break ground for the addition to the Mason Elementary School in 2009. COURTESY PHOTO

By ASHLEY SAARI

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 02-21-2024 12:58 PM

Modified: 02-26-2024 2:49 PM


In 2009, after a multiyear fight with the state over the right to do so, the Mason School District was able to establish itself as a standalone entity. Doing so meant it was no longer partnered with Greenville and New Ipswich in the Mascenic district, or SAU 63 in Wilton and Lyndeborough, which used to share superintendent services with Mascenic.

With the ConVal Regional School District putting forth warrant articles this spring that could lead to the closure of four local elementary schools – Francestown Elementary School, Dublin Consolidated School, Pierce School in Bennington and Temple Elementary School – Francestown will include an article on its warrant requesting the ConVal School Board initiate a feasibility study evaluating the possibility of withdrawing from the district.

Furthermore, during a community forum on the district’s reconfiguration plan earlier in January, multiple residents addressed the possibility of Temple, Bennington, Dublin and Francestown withdrawing.

Mason School Board Chair Chris Guiry was Mason’s representative to the Mascenic School Board at the time of withdrawal, as well as a member of the Mason Select Board, and was able to view the issue from both sides. He said, for Mason, withdrawing was the right decision, despite the long road to accomplish it.

“Sometimes, you have to break an egg to make an omelet,” Guiry said. “From the standpoint of Mason only, it was a good decision that has benefited considerably the children of the town.”

Making the decision

In 2009, Mason was a member of a three-town cooperative with New Ipswich and Greenville to share buildings, as well as in an SAU sharing superintendent services with Wilton and Lyndeborough. But Mason was seeking to withdraw from the partnerships and stand alone.

Guiry said it was not a decision made lightly, nor easy to accomplish.

At that time, Mason had been partnering with New Ipswich and Greenville for decades, and had no buildings that could serve as a middle or high school for Mason students past the fifth grade. There would be major hurdles to overcome to have Mason stand alone, but Guiry said it was not just one issue that led to the decision to file to withdraw.

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At the time Mason first began to have conversations about withdrawal, in 2003 and 2004, Mascenic was discussing changing its apportionment formula to more equally favor town valuation and student enrollment, which would have put a higher cost on Mason, which was sending the fewest amount of students of the three towns to the district. Previously, the district’s operational costs were based solely on average daily student membership.

An attempt to make the split 50-50 between membership and town valuation failed at the polls by a narrow margin, gaining majority support, but not the supermajority needed.

“It may have been the final straw for Mason,” said Mark Winslow, who was a representative on the School Board at the time, and a member of the Mason Withdrawal Committee.

Winslow said the conversation about Mason’s contribution to the district had been ongoing for a long time at that point.

“My take, and a number of people’s take at the time, was that Mason was not paying their fair share,” Winslow said. “They were taking more educational value than what they were paying for – that was the summary.”

The district was also facing some major decisions about the future of its schools, including Central Elementary School and Appleton Elementary School, which were in need of major repairs or renovations. The district has since closed both of those schools in favor of building a new elementary school, Highbridge Hill.

Guiry said there were also cultural differences between Mason and the rest of the district, specifically to do with the rate of graduating students who were going on to post-secondary education, and the fact that Mason voters felt disenfranchised over decision-making as the smallest of the three towns.

However, Guiry said for Mason, the major driver was financial.

“That was probably the key factor that was involved,” Guiry said.

The future of Mascenic’s elementary schools ultimately led to Mason being allowed to leave the district, Guiry said, as it was unable to move forward with accepting more debt to address renovations at the elementary schools or build a new one while in a battle with Mason over withdrawal.

The fight to withdraw, and changes in the law

For Mason, the decision to withdraw wasn’t as simple as Mason voting to do so – which it did, as early as its 2003 Town Meeting.

Guiry said the state was reluctant to allow the dissolution, as it went against the state’s educational philosophy at the time of encouraging partnerships between smaller towns to increase assets available to students of small communities.

“We did meet opposition,” Guiry said. “Over eight years, we became on a first-name basis with the commissioner [of education] and the state school board. There was a real recalcitrance to allow this, because they thought this might be the opening of the dam for other districts to follow.”

Christian Lund, who was the chair of the Mascenic School Board at the time and a representative of New Ipswich, said that by the end of the process, there had been tension.

“By the time they withdrew, there had been contentions raised, there was no doubt about that,” Lund said. “There were some things said that didn’t need to be said, and tensions among board members, and some of that spilled over into the process with the Department of Education, for sure.”

And while Mason as a town had voted in favor of withdrawal as early as 2003, the district as a whole went through multiple votes on the issue, and only voted in favor of allowing withdrawal in March of 2008 – after four years of unsuccessful attempts.

“I think it got to the point where Greenville and New Ipswich were tired of hearing the whining and complaining, and decided, ‘We’re just going to let you go,’” Winslow said.

In 2023, the law was changed on how towns can withdraw from a district, creating a more-streamlined process for some smaller towns to withdraw from their cooperatives.

Under House Bill 530, signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in June, in addition to the existing withdrawal process, if a three-fifths supermajority of voters in one or more towns vote to leave a cooperative school district, they may. However, 60% of the voters of the entire district have the authority to block the effort.

The impacts

Winslow said there were both costs and savings associated with Mason’s withdrawal, particularly as the town purchased its elementary school from the district. It eliminated the costs of running that school for the district, as well as about $59,000 in transportation costs to bus children to and from Mason.

However, the district also lost “economy of scale” in its middle and high school. Winslow said the effect to the high school was mitigated somewhat by the agreement that Mason students attending Mascenic Regional High School could, by tuition, finish their careers within the district.

Winslow said he did not recall any large increases in the budget or tax rate being attributable to the withdrawal of Mason students.

Along with Mason’s withdrawal from the Mascenic School District and SAU 63, Mascenic also withdrew from the SAU, and Wilton and Lyndeborough were in the midst of plans to fully consolidate its district.

In order to stand on its own, Mason took out a $5 million renovation and construction bond, which included the cost to purchase the Mason Elementary School and do major renovations on the building, adding 10,000 square feet of space to essentially double the size of the building so it could provide space for its own SAU administrative offices.

Mason made the decision, after looking at several nearby districts, to tuition its students past the fifth grade to the Milford School District, an agreement which stands today. While Mason has complete voting power over matters related to its own elementary school, it does not have a voting stake at the school board or over district issues at the ballot.

Lund said that even at the time, that was a major argument against withdrawing from Mascenic because Mason had two votes on the School Board. Greenville also had two, and New Ipswich, as the biggest town, had three.

Lund said it was arranged that way to give the two smaller towns a chance to overrule the New Ipswich representatives and give all three towns a fighting weight on the board.

“I had an opinion that they were making a mistake, in that they were tuitioning out to a district where they didn’t have representation,” said Lund.

In the wake of the withdrawal, costs within Mascenic did increase, but not wildly out of line with increases from previous years. When Mascenic withdrew from the shared SAU with Wilton and Lyndeborough, it added kindergarten, and in 2009 approved two multi-million-dollar bonds for the construction of the Highbridge Hill Elementary School and renovations to the middle and high school. Winslow said were bigger drivers in future cost increases.

Cost per pupil in Mascenic rose from $10,234 to $11,460 between the school years of 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. Comparatively, in 2009-2010, Mason’s cost per pupil was $13,063.

The Mason local school portion of the tax rate did increase during this period, going from $9.11 per $1,000 of value in 2008 to $9.99 in 2009 and $11.86 in 2010. Guiry said Mason was confident, however, that with the district looking to lean more on town valuation then daily membership in the cost split, and expensive infrastructure projects in the works, standing alone was the best financial decision in the long run.

Moving forward

Guiry said if he has any advice for towns such as Francestown looking to withdraw from a longstanding cooperative, it would be not to expect overnight results, and to be sure of the decision before making any moves.

“It usually comes down to a coalition of people being willing and able to put in extraordinary effort in the data processing that is required,” Guiry said. “It shouldn’t be taken as a quick fix to a fiscal problem that a town might have. It should be a philosophical commitment to the educational process across the board, and what’s best for the students. It will take a considerable amount of time, and effort. You have to be prepared for people not being a kindred spirit to your cause.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172, Ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on X @AshleySaariMLT.