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For Lunenburg, sports is ‘third rail’ in merger talks

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Pierre Comtois

Correspondent

TOWNSEND — Until the subject of sports came up, school officials from the North Middlesex Regional School District (NMRSD) and the Lunenburg school system meeting last Monday night found superintendents Maureen Marshall and Loxi Calmes prepared with answers to a raft of questions regarding budget assumptions dealing with a possible merger of the two school departments.

“This is something substantial,” insisted Lunenburg Regional Planning Committee member Gregory Berthiaume. “We’ll need to discuss this with our people because sports is the third rail with us.”

Berthiaume raised the subject of sports in the context of a broader discussion on a list of budgetary assumptions prepared by Marshall and Calmes ahead of a Sept. 13 presentation of a draft operating budget for the two school systems should they ever merge into a single district.

Noting Lunenburg students’ high rate of participation in school sports programs, Berthiaume said that it was important that opportunities for athletic activity be maintained should the two school systems regionalize.

For that reason, Berthiaume was concerned that there be enough open slots on various sports teams and other athletic programs to satisfy demand.

“With up to 50 percent of the students in Lunenburg participating in sports, the number of slots available is important,” said Berthiaume.

“There’s no question that there will be more students vying for a limited number of open slots,” admitted Marshall.

Marshall, however, reminded Berthiaume and other members of the Joint Committee to Explore Regional Expansion between North Middlesex and Lunenburg that the number of teams in any given sport is regulated by various athletic organizations to which the school belongs.

Fellow Lunenburg member Brendan Grady added that the possibility of North Middlesex having sporting programs unavailable at Lunenburg could go a ways to ameliorate demand by Lunenburg students.

The discussion about sports programming was only the tip of the iceberg representing the myriad areas needing further discussion that North Middlesex and Lunenburg officials will need to address before any approach to final consideration of uniting their two school systems into a new, expanded district can be completed.

Discussion between the two school systems on the possible consolidation of Lunenburg and NMRSD member towns of Pepperell, Ashby and Townsend began earlier this year at the instigation of the state’s Department of Education (DOE).

The suggestion came when the DOE’s school building division learned that both school systems possessed aging high school buildings and that each planned on renovating them using state funding.

With money not as easy to come by at the state level as it used to be, the DOE suggested that Lunenburg and North Middlesex explore possible consolidation and ultimately building a new high school for the expanded district. That way, the state saves money while the four member towns not only get a better deal than if they applied for separate funding, but they would be eligible for extra reimbursement funds in the form of low-cost loans and outright grants.

The first thing Lunenburg and North Middlesex officials did was to “crunch some numbers” to see if their budgets could be reconciled. Currently, both systems each possess high school buildings while Lunenburg has a middle school, elementary school, and primary school. The NMRSD has two middle schools, three elementary schools, and an early childhood center.

Slightly greater in overall population than Ashby and Townsend, Lunenburg’s student body consists of 1,628 as opposed to about 4,200 for the NMRSD.

At one point during the year, Lunenburg decided to further explore the possibility of going it alone and broke off negotiations with North Middlesex but after the state insisted it take another look at regionalization, Lunenburg officials returned to the table.

Since then, school superintendents Marshall and Calmes drew up a list of budget assumptions ahead of a full-scale joint budget draft due for presentation Sept. 13. In discussing those assumptions at the Joint Committee’s meeting of Aug. 30, Berthiaume led the questioning for Lunenburg concentrating on issues of class size, custodial spending, and sports.

Other areas of concern included teacher health and retirement, the number of technical staff, extended day care, summer school programs, contract expiration and negotiation, and possible reductions in force.

Ahead of the upcoming budget presentation next month, Marshall concluded Monday night’s meeting with some good news suggesting that the two school systems could be in for some unexpected cash through the federal Race to the Top program to the tune of $90,000 for North Middlesex and $76,000 for Lunenburg.

Beyond the budget presentation due on Sept. 13, chairman Robert Templeton said that he expects the Joint Committee to meet a deadline of Nov. 1 for preparation of initial feasibility findings regarding regionalization between North Middlesex and Lunenburg.