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Holbrook

Regional school plan moves step closer

Seeking a salve for low enrollment and what some consider limited programs, Holbrook took one step closer Wednesday to forming a regional school district with Avon.

Holbrook’s Town Meeting members voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming a school regionalization planning committee to work with a comparable group from Avon, if Avon approves the measure later this month. It passed in Holbrook by an uncounted show of hands, with about five opposed.

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Together, the committees would form a regionalization planning board, an essential part of the state-prescribed process for forming a regional school district.

Michael McCue, town administrator in Avon, said in a telephone interview that he anticipates that on Monday, the Avon Board of Selectmen will schedule a Special Town Meeting for March 24, with its main purpose to decide whether to appoint the regionalization planning committee.

McCue said he believes people in Avon see value in looking into the merger, even if they decide later not to execute it. He expects Town Meeting will approve the committee.

“I imagine it’ll move forward,” he said. “At least they’ll be armed with the appropriate information.”

If Avon gives the green light, state regulations call for each community’s town moderator to appoint a three-member committee, including one member of the school board.

Holbrook voted to move $40,000 from an employee health insurance account to cover committee expenses. McCue said Avon has been thinking about setting aside $30,000, but that was before he knew how much Holbrook appropriated. He said Avon’s number could change, and it might make sense to match Holbrook’s.

Regionalization would mean that middle-schoolers would probably be sent to the existing Avon Middle-High School and high school students to a proposed new building in Holbrook. A study by the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools Consulting Group determined such an arrangement would be the best use of space.

Holbrook has applied to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for funding to build new facilities for students from prekindergarten through Grade 12. It would create a prekindergarten-to-Grade 6 building and a 7-through-12 building, attached or not, on one campus. If Avon were to join with Holbrook, the building for grades 7 through 12 would probably be used as a high school, and each town would house its own elementary students.

The existing Holbrook Junior-Senior High School was built in 1954.

Holbrook officials’ reaction to the vote was mixed. Although some favor regionalization, others believe getting a new building should be the top priority. Construction could begin with or without a plan to regionalize.

“I’m more optimistic about the building project now than I ever have been,” said John Flanagan, a member of the Holbrook School Committee, after the vote. The challenge will be to convince town residents, not just Town Meeting, to support the project at the ballot box, he said.

He called the prekindergarten-through-12 project “far and away the best value” of all the configurations the town considered.

Barbara Davis, chairwoman of the School Committee, said the large-scale project would garner the highest state reimbursement rate and cost the least per square foot. To build only a high school would leave the younger grades lacking, she said, adding: “We can’t go to the well twice.”

Regarding regionalization, Davis said that forging a single teachers’ contract from two contracts would be hard work, and that she considers the estimated two years needed to complete regionalization “hugely optimistic.”

Other supporters of the new building have said Avon will never agree to regionalization without it.

Richard McGaughey, a Holbrook selectman who favors regionalization, said he wants to see Holbrook students have academic and extracurricular opportunities they do not currently have because of low enrollment.

“There’s so many things that they’re missing,” he said, calling the drawbacks to regionalization “minor.”

Steve Hemman, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, gave a brief slide presentation at the Holbrook Town Meeting about the pros and cons of regionalization. Among the advantages, he said, were the potential to add more Advanced Placement and foreign language classes, and new sports and clubs.

The towns already share a football team.

Reasons some communities choose not to regionalize, he said, include the loss of school budget autonomy, the perceived loss of local control over the schools in general, and the potential loss of the school’s athletic identity and associated community pride.

The Holbrook-Avon football team competes as the Bulldogs, a name that comes from Holbrook.

Holbrook is the larger of the two school districts, though it has a widely discussed history of students choosing to attend out-of-town high schools. The test scores of students who remain at Holbrook Junior-Senior High School have garnered the school a Level 3 rating on a five-level scale by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The school performs among the lowest 20 percent of schools serving the same grades.

Avon Middle-High School is rated Level 2 and performs in the 42d percentile, according to a state database.

Holbrook has about 480 students in grades 7 through 12, compared with about 340 in Avon.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.
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