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Seven towns debate leaving Minuteman High district

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Minuteman High students Isaac Peters (right) of Sudbury and Matt Collins of Watertown worked on a visual communications project.
Minuteman High students Isaac Peters (right) of Sudbury and Matt Collins of Watertown worked on a visual communications project.(Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)

Debbie Peters wasn't convinced a regular academic high school was the best fit for her son, so the Sudbury family looked at Minuteman High School's vocational-technical program.

Four years later, Isaac Peters has flourished. He has a part-time job through the Lexington-based school at a local cable television station, has been accepted into a college, and is happy.

"If he went to LS," Peters said of Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, "it would have been a struggle. In this place, he was able to find himself and be successful.''

Peters thinks all students should have choices and is concerned that Minuteman may soon no longer be an option for families in town. Sudbury is one of seven communities that will be voting at special town meetings before March 1 on whether to leave the 16-town district.

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"My daughter goes to LS and that's fine for her. Everyone needs something different,'' Peters said. "I look at some kids and see that going to a typical high school might not be the answer. If Sudbury backs out, then who knows if they could get into another school.''

Minuteman is looking to build a new $144.9 million school, and some member towns — Boxborough, Carlisle, Dover, Lincoln, Sudbury, Wayland, and Weston — will debate whether to pull out before the project gets off the ground and taxpayers are on the hook for funding.

Minuteman Superintendent Ed Bouquillon said regardless of how the towns vote, all existing students, and those who have applied for next year, will still be able to attend Minuteman until they graduate.

But after next year's freshman class, there is no guarantee that students from nonmember towns will have a spot.

Most of the towns considering withdrawal, except Sudbury, send fewer students in the district, so town officials have questioned whether it makes financial sense to stay as members. Sudbury sends 25 students; Boxborough, seven; Carlisle, five; Dover, two; Lincoln, 11; Wayland, two; and Weston, five.

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The other member towns are Acton, Arlington, Belmont, Bolton, Concord, Lancaster, Lexington, Needham, and Stow.

"Our decision to pursue withdrawal is driven by financial reasons, not dissatisfaction with the Minuteman educational program in any way,'' said Cherry Karlson, chairman of the Wayland Board of Selectmen.

The per-student cost varies by community based on wealth and the number of students who attend, Bouquillon said. On average, he said, it will be less expensive for most communities to stay on as members, but there are some exceptions.

Based on current enrollment numbers, for example, Bouquillon said Weston would pay about $49,000 per student as a member compared with $40,000 as a nonmember.

Weston's contribution for capital expenses would be higher as a member largely because of its wealth, Bouquillon said. "The question for Weston is — is that $10,000 worth having a vote at the table and is it worth our kids having full access to Minuteman and a career and technical education.'' Bouquillon said.

While those seven communities will vote on withdrawal, all 16 member towns will vote before March 1 on a revised regional agreement that makes it possible for certain towns to leave and for the new building project to move forward.

The agreement lays out rules for how capital costs such as the new building will be funded, how new member towns could be added, and how votes are weighted by community.

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Assuming all towns approve the regional agreement, Bouquillon said plans will move forward on the new building. He said the Massachusetts School Building Authority is expected to vote Jan. 27 to support the next phase of the project. He said the School Committee will meet shortly after the last Special Town Meeting on Feb. 24 to authorize the borrowing.

The towns that remain in the district will not have to vote again on the project if they support it. If they are opposed, they must take a vote to shoot it down at another Town Meeting this spring.

If no town votes against the plan, officials will take the next year to complete the final design. Construction would start in spring 2017 and take just over two years to complete, Bouquillon said.

Leonard Simon, chairman of the Sudbury Board of Selectmen, thinks the town should leave the district. He said Sudbury officials have long been concerned about how the school is run and the high cost to member towns.

He's also convinced that Sudbury students will have options elsewhere, whether it's at Minuteman as a nonmember, Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, or Keefe Regional Technical School in Framingham.

"I've looked into other vocational schools for Sudbury residents and the cost would be half,'' he said.

"It just doesn't make sense from a financial point of view to stay in the district, especially when we wouldn't be locked into a 30-year debt for a new school and when the other schools are as good if not better than Minuteman.''

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The departure of some towns from the sprawling district may make it easier for the school building project to move forward. Sudbury and Wayland officials in particular raised questions about the size and cost of the project.

And the void will have little financial impact, Bouquillon said, because so few students will be leaving. Currently, 57 students attend Minuteman from those seven towns, almost half of whom are from Sudbury.

Despite that, Bouquillon said he doesn't want any members to leave.

"Will my life be easier with less than 16 towns? Probably,'' he said. "But I'm not happy these families in these towns will not have Minuteman as an option. The biggest impact is those kids will no longer have access to high-quality career and technical education. A town like Sudbury believes their kids can simply apply to another vocational school, but they have secured nothing in writing that guarantees students will have access.''

Of the 673 students enrolled this past November, 396 were from within the district and 277 came from outside it.

In the short term, Bouquillon said, Minuteman will have room for out-of-district students.

"Beyond that, I can't guarantee anything,'' he said.

Bouquillon said he expects a large enrollment boost from member towns after the new school is completed. And if some towns do leave, he said he will seek other communities to replace them.

Watertown, for example, already sends 66 students; Waltham, 44; and Medford, 34.

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Ernest Houle, superintendent-director at Assabet, said officials from Wayland, Sudbury, Boxborough, and Lincoln have reached out to the school to see if it could be an option for their students. He said he told officials that he couldn't make any guarantees.

"They are looking for guarantees and unfortunately, I don't see any way in which towns could guarantee enrollment unless they were a member of a district,'' he said.

He said in addition to enrollment limits, students must also meet sadmissions criteria.

The lack of a guarantee worries Korinne Stephens of Boxborough. She is disheartened that the town may leave the district. Her son, C.J., got B's and C's in middle school but has thrived at Minuteman.

"He's super engaged and talking about college,'' she said.

But she knows there can be a stigma associated with vocational education.

"I know Minuteman gets a bad rap,'' she said. "I think the general consensus is there is no value there because only a handful of kids go. It's too bad they think that way.''

A rendering of the proposed new Minuteman High School.
A rendering of the proposed new Minuteman High School.(Kaestle Boos Associates)

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