NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 5, 2013

Triton school merger voted down

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall
Correspondent

---- — BYFIELD — A proposal to merge the Triton Regional School District’s middle and high schools got a unanimous thumbs down from the district’s School Committee this week.

The school board’s decision followed a public hearing Wednesday night and comes on the heels of a recommendation from the Secondary School Merger Review Committee, which also stood unanimous in its opposition to the idea.

Recommendations for action on some of the merger report and proposal items will be presented at the April 10 School Committee meeting.

At the public hearing, more than a half-dozen residents spoke against the merger as Superintendent Christopher Farmer, who proposed the idea in January 2012 and has maintained his support for it, listened to their arguments. Triton’s middle and high schools are located next to one another on a sprawling campus in Byfield.

Marcia Mahoney of Byfield said when she first heard Farmer’s proposal, she thought he had valid reasons for recommending a merger and good ideas about the need for changes.

“But after reading the (review) committee’s report, it does not seem like the right time now, though I would like some of his ideas put into place,” she said.

Darlene Doucot of Rowley praised the merger committee for its “phenomenal work” with its research and urged the School Committee and administration to support the good steps in the report and find the right compromise.

“There is a balance here – find it and reach for it,” she said.

Triton High senior Matt Faulkner spoke on behalf of his fellow classmates, saying that the general consensus at the high school was students were against the idea,

“The research is clear and the consensus unanimous that it is not the right time to do this,” Faulkner said.

Merger review committee members Les Murray, a former Triton faculty member for 14 years and principal in Amesbury for 10 years, reiterated his statement in his group’s report that one principal is not better than two. The proposed merger would have had one principal leading the combined school.

“I was here when Triton included grades 7 to 12 together with one principal and two assistants. It didn’t work,” Murray said.

Farmer expressed disappointment in withdrawing his proposal following the public comment. But based on the reaction, he recommended that the regional middle and high schools continue to operate as separate institutions. “Given the report and what we’ve heard this evening, there is clearly no foundation for launching a merger at this time,” he said.

He did ask for the chance to recommend at the School Committee’s April 10 meeting that elements of the proposal and merger report be considered for adoption. The school board unanimously approved his recommendation without comment.

Farmer continued, saying that he disagreed profoundly with some of the things that had been said, but had no wish to personalize his views. And while he thanked the merger committee for its efforts and said he was committed to working with them on their recommendations, he said that the committee conspicuously failed to address the first part of its charge and “focused on alternatives instead of making recommendations on the merger itself.”

In the wake of Farmer’s proposal last year, the Secondary School Merger Review Committee was formed to assess whether the idea would improve the continuity of the curriculum, teaching and learning, and student support across grades 7 through 12, thus improving student learning and development. Additionally, the committee was to raise key issues that would need to be addressed and report on any significant changes in the expenditures related to provision for grades 7 through 12 which may have resulted from the merger.

The committee released its final report on the merger last month (see the report at www.trsd.net). In the report, the 16-member committee stood unanimous against the merger, though it recommended several of its action items be undertaken on their own.

Jackie Lees of Rowley, who has three children at Triton schools, didn’t agree that the committee missed the boat on the first task, and expressed concern that Farmer brought that message to the meeting on Wednesday during a public hearing. “If we spent $15,000 for an outside consultant to keep this committee on track, this should have been addressed earlier while the committee was still at work.”

In continuing his discussion of the report, Farmer said, “The report seeks to mitigate the problems of transition, it doesn’t seek to eradicate the problems of transition and in focusing on transition it ignores the opportunities for all children to be more successful in an all-through school.”

On a positive note, Farmer pointed to several common ground areas between the report and the proposal, some of which are now in progress. These included an updated transition program for elementary to middle school students that would start in the fifth, or even fourth grade; grading protocol reviews, which are scheduled for next year; and a pilot advisory program that is now underway.

Farmer said that the district, merger or not, would continue to move forward in its commitment to provide high quality opportunities and remove obstacles to learning for every single child under its responsibility.