Berlin School District gets grant to create regional vision for education in valley

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — The Berlin school district has been awarded a $94,155 grant to work with SAU 20 on a yearlong process to create a valley-wide vision for educating the Androscoggin Valley’s students. At a time of declining state funding and student enrollment, the charge is to look at how rural school districts can work together to generate a range of alternative plans to create better schools.

Superintendent of Schools Corinne Cascadden informed the city council that the district just got word last week from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that it had approved the grant. The project will run from Jan. 1 to Dec. 30, 2018.

The council held a first reading on a resolution accepting the grant and tabled it to allow for a public hearing at the Nov. 20 council meeting.

Cascadden described the proposal as transformative, noting there is no model for what the districts are looking to do which is create a new education future based on regional collaboration.

Part of the process will include what the grant application terms “a robust community engagement process.” A project manager will be hired along with the civil engagement organizations, North Country Listens and NH Listens.

A steering committee will be established with administrators from both SAUs, school board members, students, parents, teachers, elected officials, business and community leaders, city and municipal representatives. The committee will collect input from a diverse mix of voices through community conversations, focus groups, interviews and surveys.

The N.H. Center for Public Policy will provide data on subjects such as demographic data, state education funding changes and financial impacts on local communities.

At the end of the process, the effort will conclude with ideas and priorities for future implementation. In addition to bringing diverse viewpoints to the process, the public participation component is designed to increase trust, improve communications and strengthen relationships needed to implement those recommendations.

As a prelude to the study, the city of Berlin has hired Municipal Resources Inc., to look at the advantages and disadvantages of the Berlin school district or SAU 3 becoming an independent administrative unit. Presently SAU 3 is a dependent SAU with its budget set by the mayor and city council, a fact that has been considered a barrier to regionalization efforts. That study is funded by a $35,000 Neil and Louise Tillotson grant and will be completed by March 1.

Driving the effort to look at regionalization of education are some hard economic facts. Student enrollment is decreasing. The Berlin school district has seen a steady decline in enrollment, from 1,666 students in 2001 to the 1,154 today. At the same time, state funding for education is decreasing as the state phases out educational stabilization funding. For Berlin, the impact is $219,824 annually over a 20-year period.