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Deerfield, Concord reach tuition agreement for next 10 years

Deerfield students will continue attending Concord High School for the next 10 years, as representatives from both districts finalized a new tuition agreement this week.

“I think both sides really felt the union between Deerfield and Concord was a good one, and we were going to work to make it last and go on for many years,” said Clint Cogswell, Concord’s board member on the negotiating team.

The two districts first signed a tuition agreement in 2004, which locked Deerfield into sending 95 percent of its students to Concord for 10 years. Nearly three years ago, the board started looking at whether it should continue the relationship when those 10 years ended, and both Oyster River and Pembroke Academy emerged as contenders for Deerfield’s roughly 200 high school students. After taking in community feedback, sending parents to all three schools and hosting a forum with the three principals, the board decided to stick with Concord.

The renegotiated contract will lower Deerfield’s tuition rate and reduce the percentage of Deerfield students who must attend Concord from 95 to 90 percent. It also requires Deerfield to notify Concord earlier about how many students will attend the next year so Concord can better plan its budget. Deerfield’s school board approved the contract unanimously Wednesday night, and Concord’s board will vote Monday night. (The district already released a press release on the agreement in anticipation of approval.)

“There is no rock that we have not looked under in regards to this contract,” said Don Gorman, a Deerfield board member on the negotiating committee. Concord was “very serious in regards to wanting our children, and my feeling is they gave a lot of concessions to Deerfield that we had asked for.”

Deerfield’s board members and Superintendent Patty Sherman cited the positive working relationship Deerfield already has with Concord as well as Concord’s diverse student population and academic and extracurricular programming as reasons for sticking with Concord.

In other districts across the state, high school contract negotiations haven’t gone as smoothly. Hooksett, for example, has been in an ongoing dispute with Manchester, and Goffstown officials are fighting to keep some Dunbarton students from moving to Bow.

Deerfield’s decision to stick with Concord has critics, too. Earlier this year, an 11-member Deerfield parent advisory committee unanimously suggested choosing Oyster River after visiting all three schools, and since then several parents have voiced displeasure over the final decision. Those parents chose Oyster River because it had higher test scores, less crowded facilities and high college attendance rates, among other things, according to an article in The Forum, an online community newspaper.

But members of Deerfield’s board said Oyster River was not ready to formally commit to negotiations in time to meet the Sept. 30 deadline it had with Concord. Oyster River school board agendas indicate that it planned to send tuition frameworks to Deerfield, Newmarket and Barrington this week.

“It was said on more than one occasion that no matter who we picked, some group in town was going to be mad at us,” Gorman said.

This time around, Deerfield had more leverage than it did 10 years ago, when high school enrollment was growing and schools without high schools struggled to find a home for their students. Today, enrollment is declining, and high schools are actively competing to draw in more students. In Concord, having 200 Deerfield students helps fill space and ensure there are enough students for diverse programming.

In the reworked contract, tuition for Deerfield students will go down by about $2,000 to $3,000 in the 2015-2016 school year. Under the current agreement, Deerfield tuition relies heavily on the Consumer Price Index out of Boston. For this school year, Deerfield pays upwards of $14,000 per student, while Concord High’s cost-per-pupil is about $12,821, including special education and transportation. Under the new agreement, Deerfield tuition will be based on the previous year’s cost-per-pupil plus an incremental increase and a fee for using Concord’s building and equipment. It will pay for special education and transportation separately.

To Concord’s benefit, by February each year, Deerfield must give a definite number of students who will attend Concord the next year. If fewer students than planned attend, Concord keeps the additional money and will credit it to the following year’s tuition. This will give Concord more stability while creating budgets.

The updated contract also guarantees that Concord will prepare a yearly academic report on Deerfield’s students. In past years, Concord hasn’t considered Deerfield students a separate group and therefore did not keep specific Deerfield information. During the research phase, parents had requested more information about how Deerfield students were faring academically at Concord and some felt it was not adequately provided, according to The Forum.

Even though complaints are likely to surface now that the deal is done, Deerfield’s board members are confident they’ve come up with the best solution for their students.

“I know that we did one hell of a good job for this town,” Gorman said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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