College, town to negotiate deal

by Ithan Peltan | 11/3/00 6:00am

The Dresden School District -- the consolidated district of the Hanover and Norwich areas -- and the College are hoping to strike what they hope will be a mutually beneficial deal over the Hanover school system.

While Dartmouth could gain the large piece of property on which Hanover High and Middle Schools currently stand, a land transaction deal would, if signed, represent a contribution by the College in support of the local public schools, which educate the children of many faculty and staff members.

Discussions about the high school land are taking place in the context of a five-year inquiry by the school district into how best to improve its overcrowded middle school and high school facilities.

The district is hoping to strike "a favorable deal" with Dartmouth, Dresden school board Chair Anne Seigal said.

If the College does purchase all or part of the Hanover High property, the school district would take ownership of a piece of land already owned by Dartmouth on which it will build a new middle school and possibly a new high school as well.

Both Dresden and Dartmouth officials said no land exchange will take place unless both establishments feel it is in their best interest.

Dartmouth's consideration of "best interest," however, will include the College's stake in having a strong local school system in addition to a more strictly economic cost-benefit analysis, representatives for the College said.

"The quality of the local schools and the way that relates to the character of our community is of critical interest to Dartmouth," Associate Provost Margaret Dyer Chamberlain, one of four people representing the College in the discussions, said.

"It's really about the College's long-term stake in the quality of life in the community," she said.

Dresden officials initially approached the College last summer as part of a private fundraising effort seeking what Dyer Chamberlain called "substantial" financial support.

That action was suggested by school board member and geography professor Robert Brackenridge. He brought to the school board's attention a recent contribution by Williams College of nearly $2 million towards the construction of a local public school building.

"We decided to talk with Dartmouth after learning about the assistance that Williams gave the town when Williamstown built a new elementary," Seigal said.

The College, however, declined to make a direct monetary donation, Dyer Chamberlain said.

Dartmouth officials pointed out that the College pays a significant amount to the schools through property taxes on all the land it owns in the town of Hanover, Seigal said.

That approach led to the renewal of discussions, which took place in 1998-1999 over more general ways in which the College could help improve the public schools, Seigal and Dyer Chamberlain said.

"I wouldn't have been disappointed [with the College response], but I find the present outcome much better, where the College and the school district sit down and see if they can help each other, without it being a charity situation," Brackenridge said.

A $40 million bond issue to raise money for the high and middle school renovations was initially scheduled for a vote on Oct. 17, but was postponed in deference to the land deal discussions.

The vote has been tentatively rescheduled for next spring. Any contract between Dartmouth and the school district would have to be completed "well before" a bond issue vote, Chamberlain said.

Both the College and the district are currently working in a 90-day window before deciding whether they want to enter a period of formal negotiations.

While characterizing the ongoing negotiations as preliminary, officials on both sides of the table also said they are approaching a possible land deal with a significant amount of interest.

Director of Dartmouth Public Affairs Laurel Stavis said Tuesday, "The conversations between Dartmouth and the school board are progressing quite well. The discussions are substantive and quite fruitful."

At least two different Dartmouth properties are being seriously considered as future locations for new Dresden facilities.

One possible site is the field on Reservoir Road north of the golf course and next to the Co-op gas station. The other is located on Lyme Road next to the Dartmouth Printing Company.

Moving the schools away from their longtime home in central Hanover may be somewhat controversial, Brackenridge said. "It's an emotional issue for some people."

Plans for the improvements are far from complete. While it is likely that a new middle school will be built on either the current Dresden soccer fields or land acquired form Dartmouth, the high school may only be renovated at its present site.

"They've been very, very cautious on this issue because they don't want to hurt the community spirit, the fact that local kids are ... in the eye of the community," Brackenridge said.

With community relations in mind, the College is therefore not considering the property as possible future location for dormitories or academic buildings, Director of Real Estate Paul Olsen said.

Olsen -- another member of the College group negotiating with the Dresden officials -- noted that College President James Wright had assured members of the Hanover community that, if purchased, the land would not become an extension of the core campus.

Uses for the land mentioned by Olsen and Dyer Chamberlain include conversion to athletic fields or faculty and staff housing.

"We're really interested in maintaining the character of the town," Dyer Chamberlain said.