School merger studied

Town investigates unifying districts

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / March 8, 2009
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In an effort to save money, Sudbury officials are looking into putting the local kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school system and the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School under one superintendent.

The idea is among the proposals that the town's Budget Review Task Force, formed by Town Meeting last year, offered to selectmen in December. The task force called for the consolidation and regionalization of a number of town services, which could eventually include schools, police, fire, and roadway maintenance.

Lincoln and Sudbury operate separate primary education systems, each with its own school board and superintendent, and share responsibility for the high school, where the principal also serves as the district's superintendent with a regional school board.

At a time of tight budgets and a dismal economy, bringing Sudbury's primary grades under the regional district's supervision is the proposal that has drawn the most interest. Town officials have held hearings on the proposal, which they estimate could save between $500,000 and $1 million per year, but say any decision could be several years away.

Lincoln's top municipal administrator said that a similar discussion about merging his town's K-8 system with the regional district is still at a preliminary stage.

"A group has been formed to carefully assess the option," said Town Administrator Timothy S. Higgins. "It would be premature to comment until they have completed their work."

While Lincoln and Sudbury already have a regional arrangement, adding their younger students to the mix would entail obtaining consensus among the three school committees, two boards of selectmen, and two sets of traditionally vocal Town Meeting voters.

Among the options under consideration is a superintendency union, which would keep the districts separate while having the two local school boards form the regional committee.

The state has 50 communities taking part in 17 unified districts, where the central school board's powers are limited to overseeing the superintendent and some administrative personnel, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Area towns belonging to superintendency unions include Berlin and Boylston, Dover and Sherborn, and Northborough and Southborough, the agency's website states.

The projected cost savings in Sudbury are based on cutting approximately 10 nonteaching jobs through consolidating the primary grades, now led by Superintendent John Brackett, under the regional district's superintendent.

The longtime incumbent, John Ritchie, is retiring at the end of this school year, and the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional School Committee has named administrator Scott Carpenter to take over as principal and superintendent on an interim basis.

Sudbury residents who attended meetings on the proposal in recent months have largely seemed favorable to the proposal.

Sudbury Selectman Lawrence W. O'Brien said that "if the savings show to be substantial enough to make it worth our while," the task force would pursue the proposal.

"I think if you just reorganize a few positions and take out one superintendent, you're going to be able to save maybe half a million," O'Brien said. "And in my mind, half a million worth of savings is enough to bring forward to Town Meeting."

O'Brien also said that there would be "a working dialogue" on the issue between officials in Lincoln and Sudbury.

The Sudbury task force's other ideas have included bringing Wayland into the Lincoln-Sudbury district, and looking into combining police and fire services with a number of neighboring towns, including Concord, Hudson, Lincoln, Maynard, Stow, Wayland, and Weston. In Western Massachusetts, communities in Hampshire and Franklin counties use these types of regional departments.

The proposed consolidations come at a time when Sudbury is preparing for yet another projected budget shortfall. After Sudbury voters turned down requests last spring to increase property taxes, officials instituted sharp cuts in the schools and town departments for this fiscal year.

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