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Acton, Boxborough

Regional school plan gets new life

Officials in Acton and Boxborough have revived a stalled proposal to fully regionalize schools in the two towns, and will put the plan before voters next month.

Sparked by a decline in Boxborough’s student population, the plan calls for a single district covering students in prekindergarten through Grade 12. Currently, the towns have separate districts for students through sixth grade, and share a junior high and a high school in the regional system.

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The new arrangement will be considered by Special Town Meeting sessions in both towns on June 3.

If the change is approved by local voters, it would then go to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, with a target starting date of July 1, 2014.

The new plan gives more financial and representative concessions to Acton.

“I think the latest offer is more palatable to the town,’’ said Acton resident Dennis Bruce, the chairman of the Acton Public School Committee. “It takes into consideration some of our concerns from a money perspective.’’

Officials say full regionalization would allow the towns to save money, share more resources and space, avoid administrative duplication, increase enrichment and technology services, and provide additional mentoring and professional development opportunities for teachers.

“A lot of what they do is duplication,’’ Bruce said. “The efficiencies are endless if you are able to consolidate.’’

After two years of planning, officials in February recommended putting off a vote this spring because there wasn’t enough support in Acton. But since then, Boxborough has made several compromises to make the agreement more appealing, said Boxborough resident Malcolm Reid, cochairman of the regionalization study committee.

“I believe this is democracy at its best,’’ said Reid. “We have listened to people and made adjustments, and hopefully it means people will support what we believe is the right thing for the children.’’

He said Boxborough feels more pressure to form a union because its enrollment is declining so rapidly. Last year, Boxborough had 477 students, but is projected to have 378 by the 2016-17 school year. Boxborough’s birth rates have gone down, new homes aren’t being built, and the housing market has stalled so fewer new families are not moving in, officials say.

One of the major changes to the agreement involves how financial savings from the new district would be split between the two towns during the first five years of regionalization, Reid said. Initially, Acton was set to receive 65 percent, and Boxborough 35 percent. That has been changed to an 80/20 split to more accurately reflect the percentage of students from each town, Reid said.

“Fairness seemed to be the big issue we heard when we reached out,’’ Reid said. “Acton had a difficult time wondering why they wouldn’t get 80 percent of the benefit.’’

Acton resident Peter Ashton, the regionalization study committee’s other chairman, said the total savings is expected to be approximately $1.9 million per year in the first five years. He said the new split will be significant for Acton.

The makeup of the proposal’s regional school board has also changed. The previous plan called for six members from Acton and three from Boxborough, with each Acton member having 2.4 votes. Now it calls for 11 members, with seven from Acton and four from Boxborough. Each Acton member would have 2.5 votes, to more accurately reflect the population split. The plan also calls for Boxborough to chip in more for construction bills.

Also, a provision would guarantee residents the choice of having their children attend school in their hometown indefinitely.

“Certainly our committee was very pleased and happy Boxborough came back in and recommended several changes, all beneficial to Acton,’’ Ashton said.

Reid said the Boxborough study committee felt strongly that regionalization is the best option for both towns, but for Boxborough in particular. If it isn’t approved, the town would have to accept out-of-district students and restructure its administration.

“Without regionalizing, it would make it very hard to sustain the education at the level we have now,’’ said Boxborough resident Maria Neyland, the acting chairwoman of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee.

Neyland is encouraging residents to learn about the proposal before the Town Meeting sessions. She said there will be presentations for parent and teacher groups and townwide gatherings. The League of Women Voters chapter in Acton will host a discussion at 7:30 p.m. on May 14 at Town Hall.

“The biggest thing right now is to help people get educated,’’ Neyland said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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