GUILFORD -- School board members on Thursday adopted a budget that closes the town's middle school and sends seventh- and eighth-graders to Brattleboro this fall.
The $2.9-million budget for the 2013-14 school year still is subject to Town Meeting approval. Also, voters will consider a separate article asking whether Guilford should tuition its students to Brattleboro Area Middle School.
But Dan Systo, the Guilford board's chairman, said he has come to the conclusion that students would have more opportunities in Brattleboro.
"It's about the educational benefits that we feel BAMS can provide to our students," Systo said.
The board has scheduled an informational session for parents at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Guilford Central School. BAMS administrators will be present to answer questions.
"We encourage everyone to come to Monday's meeting," Systo said.
Supporters of keeping Guilford's middle school intact had argued that students benefit from a "place-based" curriculum and a close relationship between faculty and students.
And there would be job cuts associated with shutting the middle school: The budget adopted by four members of the board who attended Thursday's meeting eliminates the full-time equivalent of 2.6 teaching positions and one para-educator position.
It also reduces spending on specialist positions in art, music, physical education and the library.
But officials have cited a steadily declining enrollment as a major reason to consider closing the school. If voters agree to the BAMS option, just 21 Guilford students are expected to transition to Brattleboro next school year.
Systo said those students will benefit from additional academic instruction including a foreign-language program, which Guilford does not offer. Also, there are more extracurricular activities and after-school programs available at BAMS.
Board member Carole Mills called Thursday's vote a "huge step" and said Guilford no longer can afford to keep up with the larger middle school.
"In terms of money, there is no way we can compare to what BAMS can offer their students," Mills said.
The BAMS arrangement also has a financial benefit for Guilford: Officials say it would have cost $80,000 to $90,000 more to keep seventh- and eighth-graders in town next year.
Mills said that, while eliminating the middle school has been considered before, this is the first time officials have been able to make the finances work for Guilford.
The middle-school agreement also includes a deal that caps Guilford's tuition payments to Brattleboro for the first four years. After that, it's expected that Guilford will join the district.
The deal, approved Wednesday by the Brattleboro Union High School #6 Board, sets annual per-student and total tuition limits:
-- 2013-14 school year: $10,750 per student, not to exceed $230,000.
-- 2014-15: $11,019 per student, not to exceed $240,000.
-- 2015-16: $11,294 per student, not to exceed $270,000.
-- 2016-17: $11,520 per student, not to exceed $300,000.
The caps insulate Guilford from big tuition increases if, as is expected, the number of middle-school students rises in coming years.
For instance, Systo said an enrollment spike is expected in the 2015-16 school year. Without a cap on total tuition, Guilford would be forced to pay $400,000 or more that year, he said.
Ron Stahley, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union superintendent, said the cap agreement is allowable under state education regulations. And he said there was incentive for the Brattleboro board to accept the cap, since the tuition agreement with Guilford still will send more than $1 million to Brattleboro over the next four years.
"That's a million-plus that they would not have had without the tuition," Stahley said. "That benefits all of the Brattleboro district schools, because it lowers their equalized cost per student."
If voters approve the special article at Town Meeting, that would designate BAMS as the middle school for Guilford students. That means parents would not be able to use tax money to send their children elsewhere.
But Stahley noted that parents still have the option of choosing another school.
"They'd pay their own tuition," he said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.