April 30. 2013 11:09PM

School choice option seen as student solution in Dunbarton, Goffstown

Union Leader Correspondent

GOFFSTOWN - The Goffstown and Dunbarton school boards will direct their respective attorneys to examine the feasibility of the so-called "school choice option," a plan that Dunbarton has suggested would lessen the disruptions to its students as the town transitions from its Authorized Regional Enrollment (AREA) agreement with Goffstown to a new AREA agreement with Bow.

Representatives from both school boards met last night to discuss how to implement the plan that would allow some Dunbarton students to enroll in Bow schools earlier than 2014 - when the AREA agreement with Goffstown is set to expire - and allow other Dunbarton students to remain in Goffstown schools beyond 2014 if they choose.

Under the proposal as presented by Dunbarton, students in the Class of 2017 entering ninth grade in September would have the option of attending Bow High School before 2014. Similarly, students in the Class of 2018 entering their freshman year in 2014 would have the option of continuing at Goffstown High School for the balance of their high school careers. And Dunbarton students in the Class of 2019 entering the seventh grade this September would have the option of attending either Bow Memorial School or Mountain View Middle School for seventh and eighth grade, and also have the option of attending Bow High School or Goffstown High for their entire high school careers.

In March, Dunbarton residents voted to enter into a new AREA agreement with Bow and let the town's 40-year-old agreement with Goffstown expire. Currently, Goffstown also has an agreement with New Boston, with its students attending Mountain View Middle School and Goffstown High School. New Boston has elected to continue its AREA agreement with Goffstown.

At a meeting of the Dunbarton School Board last month, several Dunbarton parents expressed concern that the transition to Bow would be disruptive to Dunbarton students, some of whom would find themselves attending as many as three different schools in two different communities in four years.

Those residents asked Dunbarton School Board members to approach Goffstown with the school choice plan which they said could also allow Goffstown to generate more revenue from Dunbarton after 2014.

The two Goffstown School Board members who attended Tuesday night's meeting expressed concern that what Dunbarton is asking for is a legal minefield that could expose Goffstown to lawsuits on several fronts.

School board member Keith Allard, representing Goffstown, said Goffstown's attorney had advised them that any change to the current AREA agreement among Dunbarton , New Boston and Goffstown would require a vote of the residents of the three communities.

But Dunbarton School Board member Jeff Trexler cited two mechanisms under state law whereby that would not be necessary. The first would require Dunbarton to show hardship, and the second would require the school choice option to be carried out using annual contracts instead of a multi-year contract.

"Goffstown School Board member Ginny McKinnon said one difficulty is that Goffstown has already set its budget and staffing goals for next year, and those goals have taken into account the exodus of Dunbarton students in 2014.

McKinnon also questioned whether Bow would take issue with Dunbarton's proposal once it crunches the numbers. "They're expecting this revenue to come in (tuition payments from Dunbarton) to keep programs running, but yet their enrollment's going to go down from what they expected when agreed with you," McKinnon said.

Trexler, however, responded that Bow has consented to the school choice option. "The way Bow looks at it, they don't want unhappy kids from Dunbarton who don't want to be there," he said.

One significant issue that will have to be worked out is transportation. Under state law, a town must provide transportation for students up to the eighth grade. Trexler said Dunbarton understands its obligation in that area and is working on a plan that would address that issue.

"If we proceed to do anything, we have to do it in a way to reduce our liability exposure," said Allard.

After the attorneys from both sides review the proposal, Dunbarton and Goffstown will meet with their counterparts from New Boston, tentatively scheduled for May 9 at the SAU 19 office in Goffstown.

Allard said Goffstown has not begun discussions with New Boston on a new AREA agreement, and he doubts whether any new agreement could be arrived at within the next 30 days.

Trexler said there is not much time to move on the proposal. "If we're going to be making choices about next September, we're going to need to be making those choices within the next month," he said.