Fate of Sandown Central Still Unclear

By James Niedzinski jniedzinski@eagletribune.com

BRENTWOOD, N.H. — A judge is expected to decide soon whether operating Sandown Central School is legal.

About two dozen representatives from Sandown, Danville, and the Timberlane Regional School District packed into Rockingham Superior Court Friday to hear arguments during a preliminary injunction hearing.

The result of the hearing will determine if keeping Sandown Central open as a school for kindergarteners and preschool age students is legal.

Voters decided not to fund the school at Town Meeting.

Later, the Timberlane Regional School Board voted to house preschool-age special education students from around the district, preschool students and kindergarten students and Sandown Central.

Sandown North is set to house grades one through five.

After voicing their concerns at a School Board meeting in June, selectmen from Danville and Sandown filed a complaint in Rockingham Superior Court on July 8.

The two towns are looking to stop funding Sandown Central, given the town meeting votes to take away money from the school.

Town officials also raised questions about Superintendent Earl Metzler’s use of advisory committees and the Right to Know Law, as well a green space at Sandown North in the complaint.

The towns, through their attorney Dean Eggert, were trying to prove Friday there would be irreparable harm should the school continue to operate while the lawsuit is ongoing.

Friday, the school district attorney Demetrio F. Aspiras III argued there is no irreparable harm because nothing would be different a few weeks down the line.

The harm, Eggert said, wouldn’t be purely financial. The will of the voters isn’t being followed, he said, and should the school close, it wouldn’t be best to do it with students there.

Judge Andrew Schulman said it would be legally possible to force a school to close during the school year.

“But it would become close to crazy as far as shutting down the school and moving students around,” he said.

One issue of contention was the School Board’s ability to move money around, Eggert said. Once a budget line item is “zeroed out,” he said, no money can be transferred back into it, as is the case with Sandown Central.

However, Aspiras said, the school budget did not zero anything out, it just was not increased.

And no outside money is being used, he said.

“No additional money is being spent, no additional money is being raised,” Aspiras said.

The school district can work within their own general operating budget, he said, and the district is required to provide and education to students.

There should have been a Town Meeting vote to close the school and create a new one to house students at Sandown Central, Eggert said.

In addition, the district’s articles of agreement should have been amended, because the agreement states the schools can only be used as they currently are, not different grades or purposes, Eggert.

In the past, school officials have received legal opinion backing Sandown Central, arguing a kindergarten and preschool is not an elementary school.

The towns’ attorney also brought up the feasibility of Sandown withdrawing from the school district.

Two committees are studying the feasibility and suitability of Sandown withdrawing from Timberlane, Eggert said. By putting districtwide programs in the school, it tips the scale in Timberlane’s favor, he said.

But the judge said the districtwide program could have impacted the withdrawal study both ways, since Sandown students attend high school in Plaistow.

“There would be a generalized shuffling anyways,” he said.

As for Metzler’s advisory committee, Eggert argued minutes should have been kept by the committee, and it should have been open to the public, considering public officials were serving on the committee.

But, Metzler said after the hearing, that’s not the case, considering the committee was not created as a School Board subcommittee.

“I made it very clear in May they were presenting on my behalf,” he said.

About an hour and a half into the hearing, there was a break.

Both Metzler and Danville Selectmen’s Chairman Shawn O’Neil said they were pleased with the second half.

“Our lawyer laid out a very good, compelling case for our arguments,” O’Neil said.

The district plan for Sandown Central remains the best option for the district, Metzler said. The larger learning space would mean more room for more students, the special education preschool was housed at Pollard School in Plaistow.

“I just think that would be a great asset for Timberlane to have,” he said.

While Metzler said he is hopeful the district will prevail, officials started planning for the worst-case scenario when the two towns filed the legal complaint.

“You hope for the best and you plan for the worst,” he said.

The judge took the matter under advisement, Metzler and O’Neil said, and was expected to issue an opinion soon.