GUILFORD -- Should Guilford continue to host a middle school?
That's the question Guilford School Board officials are grappling with as they consider whether the town's seventh- and eighth-grade students would be best served by attending Brattleboro Area Middle School.
The decision ultimately will fall to town voters. But with Guilford's enrollment declining, officials say they need to explore their options.
"We want to be very transparent in this and very up-front," Guilford board member Penny Lussier said. "This is about what opportunities we can offer our children."
It's not the first time officials have discussed such a move, though Guilford Central School Principal John Gagnon acknowledged that "the answer's always been a resounding ‘no.'"
The last vote on the matter occurred in 1999.
"The town overwhelmingly voted to keep the seventh- and eighth-graders in Guilford," Gagnon said.
But the number of Guilford students has continued to decline. When Gagnon started work in Guilford 18 years ago, there were 299 students in the town's elementary and middle schools.
Enrollment now stands at 131. There are just 28 total students in seventh and eighth grades.
So the Guilford board "is now looking at the issue anew," Gagnon said.
When the possibility of discontinuing the town's middle school resurfaced several years ago, financial concerns ended the discussion.
"The cost was
That has changed, however. Officials said recent, preliminary estimates show that tuitioning all of the seventh- and eighth-graders to Brattleboro would cost just $18,000 more than keeping them in Guilford.
Lussier said board members will work in the coming months to get those numbers even closer. If financial considerations can be removed from the discussion, officials and residents can focus on "what this offers for the children of the district," Lussier said.
To that end, the Guilford board invited Brattleboro Area Middle School Principal Ingrid Chrisco to speak last week about the larger, regional school's programs.
"I presented what we have available to students during the school day and after the school day," Chrisco said. "We talked about our core values -- what drives us here at BAMS."
A packet she submitted to the board included excerpts from the student/parent handbook as well as examples of after-school and summer programs.
That meeting was just one step in a process. On Oct. 15, at the Guilford board's regular meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Guilford middle school teachers will make a presentation.
The Guilford board also plans to visit BAMS. And, if Guilford voters eventually agree to send students to Brattleboro, the Brattleboro Union High School #6 Board "would need to have a similar vote to accept them into the district," said Ron Stahley, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union superintendent.
"I think it will be a lengthy process," Stahley said. "I think there will be a lot of informational meetings."
There are some deadlines to meet along the way. In November, Guilford board members expect to begin formulating two budgets -- one with seventh- and eighth-graders in Guilford and the other with those pupils in Brattleboro.
Those budgets will be finished in January, and the spending plans will be presented at Guilford Town Meeting.
"We want to have both options for the public," Lussier said.
While they're careful to not choose a side, officials acknowledge that eliminating Guilford's middle school comes with a long list of pros and cons.
For example, students would gain access to a greater number of programs and activities at Brattleboro. Lussier said it can be difficult to offer many extracurricular activities to a small student body like Guilford's.
"We can barely field sports teams," she said.
Also, there may be more staff members such as counselors available at a larger school. And more students means more opportunities for social interaction, officials said.
On the other hand, officials said a smaller school can mean a closer relationship among students and teachers along with opportunities for specialized instruction.
As examples, Gagnon pointed to a program that has Guilford's seventh-graders making and selling their own bread. And the town's eighth-graders produce a community newspaper.
"It is part of our core programming," Gagnon said.
There are other matters to consider, as well. Board members have discussed the fact that closing Guilford's middle school could free up space for a preschool.
"We have no preschool whatsoever in Guilford right now," Lussier said.
But there also are potential staffing impacts that could reach beyond Guilford's middle school teachers. If the middle school is cut, "we'd be looking at our programs and making decisions about staffing needs," Gagnon said.
For all of those reasons, Lussier said Guilford residents' input and involvement is critical as officials deliberate during the fall and winter.
"We really want all of the community to make this decision," Lussier said.