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By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

PEPPERELL — These days, Jonna Clermont’s chance meetings with local residents often turn into instant summits about the potential merger between the North Middlesex Regional and Lunenburg school districts.

“There hasn’t been one person who wants to merge with Lunenburg,” said Clermont, who serves on the regional School Committee. “Instead, they want a smaller district.”

Many of them also ask Clermont the same question: “Can the town leave the regional school district?”

The question reflects Pepperell residents’ mounting frustration over the way the school district is being managed, said Selectman Joseph Sergi. The district budget increased by 3 percent this year after declining by 1.1 percent last year, while the town’s operational budget has shrunk. Superintendent of Schools Maureen Marshall has doubled as head of the Quabbin Regional School District since the fall of 2009, even though many Pepperell residents criticized the move as an ineffective cost-cutting measure. Marshall is now pushing the dialogue with Lunenburg for a potential merger and addressing the need for renovations — and possibly a total reconstruction — of the high school.

Pepperell residents feel the town has little control over the district, and that amplifies concern about the merger talks and about being part of the district, Sergi said.

“Politically, it will be difficult to get out of the district,” he said, adding that he supported doing an analysis on just that.

“Should it be looked at? Absolutely,” said Finance Committee member Alan Leao on whether or not leaving the district would actually save money. The North Middlesex Regional School District serves more than 4,000 students from Pepperell, Townsend and Ashby. Almost half are from Pepperell.

Sergi said he started hearing more residents discussing a potential separation from the district after municipal budget problems began to balloon.

Last year, the town averted shutdowns of the library, senior center and community center through a $646,000 tax override. The district closed several schools to save money. But Pepperell officials later realized their plan to return the Fitzpatrick School to the town would have cost the district nearly $800,000 in state grants because the funding required that the building remain as a school. Teachers and administrators made contractual concessions, but town officials and many residents have maintained the district needs to further tighten its belt.

Clermont said operating its own school district might help Pepperell consolidate Town Hall and school administrative positions. Pepperell has three school buildings, which are all in the town center. That would provide transportation savings — funding that the state has drastically cut down on over the past years while restricting regional districts from charging bus fees, Clermont said.

An analysis must take into account the number of local students in special education and a range of other issues, Leao said. He also believes sharing the cost of school administrative positions among three towns is highly efficient. Overall, a regional district is “a good value for the money, if done right,” he said.

Sergi said it won’t be easy to retrofit the Nissitissit Middle School as a high school. He and Leao also worry that an analysis would add a huge workload to the School Committee. But they agree with Clermont that looking into the option would be better than doing nothing. Sergi said an analysis could be done either by the School Committee or by an ad-hoc committee that includes School Committee members and school officials.

Marshall has advocated for talks with Lunenburg, saying the merger could convince the state to fund more toward renovations or reconstruction of the 50-year-old North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend. Sergi is aware the building needs an upgrade.

“It’s not that the town of Pepperell doesn’t support quality education; it’s just that the expenditure has to make sense,” Sergi said.

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