In Deerfield, high school choice debate continues

By EILEEN O’GRADY

Monitor staff

Published: 02-09-2023 7:14 PM

Deerfield residents packed the basement community room of the town office building with one topic on their minds – the future of Deerfield’s high school age students.

The event, a panel discussion on school choice, was put on by a citizens’ group that wants to expand high school options for the town. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was a speaker along with Republican State Rep. Glenn Cordelli and N.H. State Board of Education member Richard Sala.

The discussion is the latest installment of a decades-long conversation over which high school is the best fit for the town of Deerfield. The town educates its children in grades pre-K-8, but does not have its own high school. For the past 19 years, Deerfield has maintained a tuition contract to send its students to Concord High School. Now, faced with the choice of whether to renew the contract with Concord for another 20 years, some parents are saying they want more choices.

“I want to give families at least one or two more options for their children,” said Deerfield parent Bobby-Ann Dostie. “My goal is to have a certain amount, two or three schools that are safe for these kids that are within a great distance that will save on transportation.”

Dostie, who launched the citizens’ group “Deerfield Deserves High School Choice” in 2022, has a fifth-grader at Deerfield Community School and a ninth-grader at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy. Last year, Dostie went through the process of applying for a hardship exemption so her daughter could attend Coe-Brown instead of Concord due to a specific personal safety concern, and she said the experience solidified her belief that Deerfield needs an easier way of allowing students to attend schools they prefer.

“There are a lot of people in this town that have had issues or just want something different,” Dostie said. “I’ve also met a ton of people who love Concord High and say that it’s worth the drive for them, so I’m not saying it should be one or the other. I’m saying that as a community that doesn’t have our only high school, we can definitely make things easier for our neighbors.”

The Concord School Board already voted to enter the new tuition contract at a meeting Nov. 7. Deerfield residents will vote on the contract during Town Election Day in March.

If passed, the new contract would go into effect in 2024 and carry until 2044 with the option to re-visit the agreement at the 12-year mark in 2036. The terms would require at least 90% of Deerfield’s public school students to attend Concord High School, a percentage that does not include private- and home-schooled students. Deerfield could send up to 10% of its public school students to other districts on a tuition agreement, but those students would have to apply for a hardship exemption to switch districts.

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“The Concord High School contract is what the School Board feels is the best option to satisfy all the educational needs for our students,” said Deerfield parent and interim school board member Kendra Cohen. “It also makes the most fiscal sense.”

If the new proposed contract gets voted down on Election Day, school board members will go back to the drawing board to look at other options.

Most of the parents behind the push for more high school options say they’re not opposed to Concord High – they just want more choice. Many point to the town of Barrington as a model, where students apply to attend either Coe-Brown, Oyster River or Dover high schools.

“For me, that choice should be made by the student and their parents, as to what school is going to provide the environment in which your student will thrive,” said Deerfield resident Stacey Marchionni, the parent of a fifth-grader. “That may be different for different children.”

Weighing the cost

The Deerfield School Board chose to pursue a contract with Concord after about two years of research by a high school study committee made up of school board and community members. School Board chair Zachary Langlois said Concord is a good choice for Deerfield due to having a more affordable per-pupil tuition cost and because Concord is willing to guarantee placement for all Deerfield students. He said its Concord Regional Technical Center (CRTC) and extracurriculars are also appealing.

“The CRTC program in Concord is phenomenal and it’s really been a huge attraction,” Langlois said. “Concord provides a phenomenal experience for our kids and our kids thrive there. They do an excellent job.”

Currently, 159 Deerfield students attend Concord High. According to a report submitted to Deerfield by Concord High School principal Michael Reardon in October 2022, 17 students took an AP course in 2022, 38 took a CRTC course, 39 took a foreign language and 87 participated in a sport. Last year Deerfield had 38 students in special education at Concord High.

At Deerfield’s 2020 annual school district meeting, the school board put two opinion poll questions on the warrant. One asked residents if they would support more high school options if there was no additional cost to the taxpayer; 78% of residents said yes. The second question asked if they would still support more school choice if it cost the town an additional $4,000 per year – the approximate difference between Concord’s and Coe-Brown’s per student rate at the time. That time, only 34% of residents said yes.

“The results kind of flipped,” Langlois said. “They overwhelmingly said no, they want us to be cognizant of the costs.”

Next school year, the per-pupil tuition rate to send students to Concord High School will be $15,382, with an additional capital fee of $529 per student. If Deerfield residents agree to the new contract with Concord, the capital fee would be removed starting in fall 2024. The per-pupil tuition rate to send students to Coe-Brown next school year is $19,218, a difference of $3,836 per student when compared to Concord.

In Deerfield, where residents have voted down the town operating budget every year since 2017, Cohen says she worries that residents’ support for school choice won’t carry through when faced with the prospect of paying more to cover the tuition rates.

“Voters will feel one way, but then when they see the tax costs on the ballot we tend to not vote in favor of it,” Cohen said. “I worry that if we have this choice model, there’s going to be years where our operating budget and our K-8 school is very much impacted because tuition payments have gone up a lot and we’re on the default budget.”

Weighing public opinion

When Deerfield’s High School Options Committee surveyed current and former Deerfield Concord High students in 2021, 47% indicated their experience at the school was positive. Most agreed that Concord High met their needs, did a good job of integrating Deerfield students into the school and offered an array of extracurricular opportunities.

However, most students said on the survey they were not satisfied with transportation. With Concord High located about 20 miles or more from parts of Deerfield, bus rides can last more than an hour. Kevin Verville, a Deerfield resident and Republican state representative who has been vocal in favor of school choice, said his daughter who is a Concord High sophomore, has to be at the bus stop by 6 a.m. every morning to get to school in time for the 7:45 a.m first period.

Travel time is one of the reasons Deerfield parent Kimberly Black wants more choices. Black, the mother of a first-grader and a pre-schooler, works in Durham and worries about the amount of driving between three towns that will be required to support her children’s extracurricular activities when one is attending Concord High and one is at Deerfield Community School.

“A lot of the homes in town have dual working families, and transportation-wise to be able to support their children and extracurriculars, it would make more sense to have different schools that they could support the kids,” Black said.

In their work over the past several years, the high school study considered as many as 22 different high schools before narrowing it down to about six that included Concord High, Coe-Brown, Pembroke Academy, Bow High, Pinkerton Academy and Dover High. A weighted ranking of quantitative metrics such as distance, cost, graduation rate and state assessments results that was published by the committee ranked Coe-Brown in first place, followed by Bow and Pinkerton, with Concord in fourth place.

In a 2021 survey of Deerfield Community School families, the majority of respondents said their preferred school would be Coe-Brown. Concord High was the second-most popular choice, followed by Pinkerton Academy and Pembroke Academy.

A long history

In many ways, this year’s push for more high school options is the reverse of a debate that happened 20 years ago. In the early 2000s, Deerfield was sending students to as many as 16 different high schools – eighth graders had to apply, spots were not always guaranteed and school board members had some concerns over equity.

“The board at that time was ending up in situations where they had students who didn’t get a placement, which is obviously something that flies in the face of public education,” Langlois said. “We need to make sure that every child has access to appropriate public education. So that was what kind of what started this contract process 20 years ago.”

A Deerfield School Board letter from 2017 published on the website The Forum, recalled the debate being contentious.

“Tension, frustration, and anger between Deerfield families spilled over when some students were accepted to preferred schools over other students, and a few Deerfield students did not even gain acceptance to any local high school,” the school board’s letter reads. “These driving factors contributed to the Deerfield School Board negotiating and signing a 20-year contract with the Concord School District in 2004 for CHS to be Deerfield’s School of Record. As part of the contract, CHS agreed to educate all of Deerfield’s students, thereby eliminating the 8th-grade stress of competing for a school and splitting from classmates.”

Black was one of those students who attended high school in the early 2000s, just before the first Concord-Deerfield tuition agreement was established, and she remembers the process as a positive experience. Black was accepted to Coe-Brown, Concord and Pembroke Academy, and ultimately chose Coe-Brown, which she loved.

“As an eighth-grader looking out at the big world knowing that these options were there, I think it was a big step to be able to make that choice for what would best fit me,” Black said. While her children are still years away from high school, Black said she hopes they’ll also be able to choose.

“If they want to go to Coe-Brown, that’d be great. If they want to go Concord, we’ll deal with those limitations as far as transportation goes and being able to support that,” she said.

Deerfield residents will discuss the Concord-Deerfield contract at a school deliberative session Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Deerfield Community School, 66 North Rd. Residents will vote on the contract in the polls on Town Election Day March 14.

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