NH school may be the first closed by the state

By Lynne Tuohy
Associated Press Writer / June 27, 2010

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UNITY, N.H.—The mural on the wall of rural Unity Elementary School proclaims July 27, 2008, as "the day history came to Unity," a reference to a visit by former presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to bury their campaign hatchets.

Two years later, Unity again is braced to make history -- as home to the first school ever closed by the state for life-threatening building violations.

Two members of the state Board of Education will tour the school on Monday ahead of a vote next month on whether to shutter the 55-year-old school. The 120 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade would likely be transported to Claremont, about 10 miles away, if the school is closed.

"We've been given an ultimatum," said principal Maynard "Chip" Baldwin. "No one believes in the power of the state until they're breathing down your throat."

The school has remained open for two years on conditional approval by the state to allow time to correct fire code violations that include "dead end" corridors with no exits, a lack of fire-resistant partitions and classrooms that do not have two exits. Local officials estimate the cost to make the repairs is more than the $5.9 million needed to build a new school.`

Several state school board members, at their June 9 meeting, expressed outrage that residents twice soundly defeated proposals to build a new school, with one calling it "deplorable." Board members made it clear they were ready to close the school.

"I can't imagine putting those children in harm's way for another year," board member William Walker said.

Unity has about 1,740 residents and 700 houses. And 141 of those homes have tax liens on them for nonpayment, the town's school superintendent, Jaqueline Guillette, told state school board members.

"Unity is not in a good place," she said.

The tax rate is $13.06 per $1,000 in value. With state officials all but guaranteeing 45 percent of construction costs in emergency aid, the net cost of new construction would be $3.2 million, and the tax rate would increase to $15.14 to cover the proposed bond. But if the town must pay tuition for its students in other districts and still pay staff who would remain under contract, the tax rate would soar to $22.29.

Deputy tax collector Tyyne Cox said all four of her children went through the school and her grandchildren are there now. She had opposed building a new school because of the cost, but has changed her mind.

"I think it's going to cost us a lot more in the long run if we don't build a school," Cox said.

The one-story school house built on a slab has numerous doors posted as "Not an Exit." Two classrooms can be accessed only by walking through another classroom. The nurse's office has no heat or running water. A small cafeteria doubles as a gymnasium. A quaint kitchen looks like it belongs in a hunting camp, not a school.

"It's a tired old building that was built on the cheap, added onto on the cheap and now they're paying the costs," Baldwin said. "This is an opportunity for this town to rally and support a new school. It really is the most prudent solution."

For a bond proposal to pass in Unity, it must be approved by 66.66 percent of those voting. Proponents of a new school have yet to see even 50 percent support among voters. The bond issue was defeated 203-124 in 2009 and 215-164 this year.

The tuition and transportation costs of farming out Unity students to other districts would run about $1.3 million, under the worst case scenario hammered out by school officials. Local officials also are looking at facilities they might rent to house the entire student body, such as the old Kearsage Regional Middle School building in New London. The Claremont Board of Education last week said its school system could absorb all 120 students and might be able to reduce tuition rates, which run between $11,000-$14,000 per student based on age.

To revisit the new school proposal or even to appropriate more money to cover tuition and transportation costs, the town would have to petition the Superior Court for permission to hold an emergency meeting.

State Board of Education members Daphne Kenyon and Stephen L'Heureux will tour the school Monday with Unity officials, who are hoping for one more reprieve. Baldwin assured board members at the last meeting that the school can be evacuated in 45 seconds in an emergency.

"These are tough economic times," board member Walker said. "But to sacrifice the children -- to hold the children's lives in question every day, ... 45 seconds in a fire is a long time."

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