For the second year in a row the Administrators of the Hampton School District (SAU90) have been making the rounds of the various town boards to promote the $25.9 million renovation and expansion of the Hampton Academy Middle School. Last year, after the warrant article did not achieve the 60% plurality needed to pass, we met with the renovation committee and asked that alternatives be considered to balance the needs and wants of the school community with the impact on the taxpayer. The committee quickly dismissed our request and forged ahead on the same path, but with a much more aggressive marketing program this year. The public deserves to know all of the facts when making their decision.
Until recently, SAU90 had a link on the Home Page of their web site to the 2016 update of the 10-year NESDEC student enrollment projections. SAU90 is one of 300 School Districts affiliated with this credible organization; SAU90 Superintendent Murphy is a Board member. The NESDEC data reflects a historical decline in Hampton Academy’s enrollment from 542 students back in 2004 down to 403 this year. Of greater importance is that enrollments are projected to decline over the next ten years by another 25% to 305 students. When we mentioned these statistics to an active supporter of the Academy project we were brushed off, but within a few days the link to the report was gone from the SAU90 Home Page. We are not aware of these projections being incorporated into presentations supporting the project. In 2013, NESDEC enrollment projections were used as supporting information for the $588,000 expansion of Center School. However, actual enrollments have declined even faster than those projections and school administrators are planning to use vacant space at Center School to temporarily house the SAU90 Administrative offices.
On a financial level, since 2001 the SAU90 cost per pupil has more than doubled from $7,342 to $15,769 in 2016, way beyond general inflation. This is based on information published by the State of NH Department of Education. If the Academy renovation and expansion is approved we estimate cost per pupil will exceed $17,000 in 2018. To be fair, ineffective management of per pupil costs is a problem statewide and is not easily addressed, given the trend of declining enrollments. However, the time has come to get serious and act realistically and intelligently in developing a strategy for managing declining enrollments. Long-term consideration should be given to consolidating grades PK-8 from three schools to two.
This past year, members of our organization toured the school and had a comprehensive review of the plan; our conclusions remain the same. After touring the school the persistent observation we made is that the school has been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. The voters have historically approved $300,000 a year for long-term maintenance going back to 2002, but little of that allocated funding has been applied to necessary Hampton Academy improvements. One glaring example is the condition of the toilets at the back of the gym, which are atrocious. Why haven’t they been updated? Really, that should have been done years ago. Unfortunately, the agenda has been to go with mostly new and expensive rather than reconfiguring and renovating, addressing safety issues, replacing the roof and solving locker problems. The current proposal for the renovation and addition of Hampton Academy goes well beyond what is necessary to make the facility safe and improve the quality of education.
It’s worth mentioning that the background of the five current members of the SAU90 School board consist of a retired SAU90 teacher, a retired SAU90 Assistant Principal, a Seabrook Principal who is the spouse of the retired Assistant Principal on the board, the spouse of a current Hampton Academy teacher and a Director of a Hampton pre-school. We reached out to several former school board members who have served the community over the past ten years, of the five we communicated with only Jerry Znoj was supportive of the project. The rest believed the renovation and expansion goes too far and that in the future Hampton may not have a large enough PK-8 student population to support three schools. One of our supporters, a Hampton taxpayer who is a long-serving teacher in another local public school system commented, “I totally understand and would gladly support the safety elements and the genuine teaching improvements, but beyond that it's just a show. So much of this is the Keeping Up with the Joneses mentality, not needed and won't be appreciated.”
It is of interest that our SAU90 Administrators have a history of unsuccessfully promoting expensive new schools projects in Newmarket. Nate Lunney, the SAU90 Business Administrator, is currently Chair of the Newmarket School board and Katherine Murphy, SAU90 Superintendent, was at one time the Newmarket Superintendent. Newmarket had a $45 million proposal for a JR/SR High School rejected by the voters in 2014, this year they are proposing a scaled back project with a JR/SR High cost of under $30 million that might actually pass. Newmarket is also affiliated with the NESDEC and enrollment projections are a consideration in this year’s “reduced cost” plan. There is a lesson in this for Hampton.
There are definitely improvements that are needed at the Academy to move it forward to support our student’s needs, but we cannot support the unnecessary level of spending in the $25.9 million proposal. The cost of the renovation and expansion adds $4,000 to $5,000 a year, each year, for the next 25 years to the per pupil cost of educating a Hampton Academy student; this is excessive and insensitive to taxpayers.