Andover residents mulling choices about school’s future

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ANDOVER — A member of the group leading a renewed effort to withdraw from SAD 44 said although it sounded like residents at Thursday night’s selectmen meeting were distrustful of the district and school board, he doesn’t think they are.

“I wouldn’t say there’s distrust of the district,” Jarrod Dumas of the On Our Own group said after the meeting. “I would say that there’s a large portion of people who live in Andover who favor keeping the school open and favor withdrawal if that is the best way to do that in terms of, you know, cost effectiveness for the town and in terms of having input over hiring and programming and those things.”

The group, which formed during the first withdrawal effort that started two years ago, gave selectmen a petition Monday to restart the withdrawal process.

A town vote Jan. 7 to withdraw from SAD 44 fell eight votes short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. The balloting topped a hard-fought, two-year effort to leave the district, which also includes Bethel, Greenwood, Newry and Woodstock.

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On Thursday night, selectmen approved placing the group’s withdrawal article and one on SAD 44’s proposal to keep the Andover Elementary School open, under certain conditions, on the March 18 referendum ballot.

A new Withdrawal Committee has been appointed by selectmen and includes Selectman Keith Farrington and Paula Lee, who were on the first committee, and Road Commissioner Marshall Meisner.

“We formed the (new) committee to investigate whether we could find middle ground with the district short of withdrawal,” Farrington said Friday night.

Although Thursday night’s emergency selectmen meeting was called to act on warrant articles in time for absentee ballot preparation, many in the standing-room-only crowd said they believed SAD 44’s proposal to keep Andover in the district was being fast-tracked.

On Monday, the district’s school board presented a proposal that calls for the nearly century-old school to be turned over to the town and leased back to the district.

Dumas said, in his opinion, the angst directed at Farrington and Selectman Judy Tabb at Thursday’s meeting may have sounded like people distrusting the SAD 44 board, but they weren’t.

“If there was a deal that worked with the district, it would be awesome,” Dumas said. “If it doesn’t work for the town, that’s why people are pursuing withdrawal at the same time.”

Dumas said a lot of people came to Thursday night’s meeting because they are interested in the process.

“You know, 64.5 percent of the Andover voters voted to withdraw a couple weeks ago,” he said. “There’s still a lot of interest in withdrawal and there’s sort of a renewed spirit behind the project and we understood that there was a last-minute meeting called to put something on the warrant,” he said.

“SAD 44 had drafted a proposal and there was a lot of confusion about what that was, so we wanted to hear it firsthand,” Dumas said. “That was why there was a lot of folks here (Thursday night).

“It sounds like that is still up for discussion apparently, although what they just voted on locked in some terms sort of, so it’s hard to say if they’re really negotiable or not, because it sounds like now, unless you want it to be for three years, you’d have to vote no or hope that selectmen take it off the ballot. So it sounds like that’s a done deal, but it’s hard to say.”

The school was built in 1916 as a high school. It eventually became an elementary school and serves about 30 students in grades kindergarten to five.

The SAD 44 board voted in 2011 to close the school at the end of that school year due to maintenance costs and declining enrollment, but the town voted to pay extra to keep it open. Since 2011, residents have paid $422,000 above the annual school assessment to keep it open.

The March 18 warrant will ask voters if they want to start another withdrawal effort and if they want to accept SAD 44’s proposal to turn the school over to the town and lease it back to SAD 44. The district would provide routine maintenance and the town would be responsible for capital improvements. Andover would pay its annual assessment of about $400,000 plus $140,000 based on enrollment.

Selectmen have two weeks to decide if they want to keep the competing articles on the warrant. Balloting will be from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 18, at the Town Hall.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

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