SHAFTSBURY >> The boards of the Arlington and Shaftsbury school districts met on Thursday to discuss whether a merger under Act 46 would be beneficial to both sides.
Shaftsbury, currently a member of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union with Bennington, North Bennington, Pownal, and Woodford, operates Shaftsbury Elementary School for students from pre-K through sixth grade. From seventh to 12th grade, students attend the Mount Anthony Union school district. Arlington is part of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, with Sandgate, and operates Fisher Elementary School and Arlington Memorial Middle and High School.
Shaftsbury was represented at the table by board chairman Fran Kinney, board members Larry Johnson, Holly Bahan, and Jeffrey Leake, principal Jeff Johnson, and SVSU superintendent Jim Culkeen. Arlington was represented by board chairwoman Dawn Hoyt and board member K. John Smith.
Both boards acknowledged that much work would have to be done to determine if Shaftsbury and Arlington are even realistic partners for a merger. Shaftsbury has representatives on the SVSU's Act 46 study committee, and Arlington is in talks with a number of other districts about a number of possible scenarios. Together, the two districts would have about 870 students, basically evenly divided between the two districts, which would be just short of the 900 students required for one of the preferred governance structures put forth in the act. There would also be physical challenges to overcome, as AMMHS, even without the students from Sandgate, who may end up partnered with another district, is not equipped to handle all of Shaftsbury's middle and high school students. Shaftsbury would also typically have to get voter approval from the other communities in the Mount Anthony Union district to leave, although Culkeen said that Act 46 may act as an "escape hatch" for that particular requirement, although he said legal counsel would be necessary to know for sure. He added that Shaftsbury had very little money tied up in bonds regarding MAU, and could easily buy those out, although he did not have the dollar value of that bond.
Both boards were clear that discussions were in very early stages, and that many aspects of the law still needed to be clarified. "So, here's reality, we don't have a clue what to do," said Smith.
"Neither do we, so we're both even here," responded Kinney, "This is the first meeting we've had." He said that they had reached out to North Bennington about a potential arrangement, but were told, "that they are doing their own thing."
Board members from both districts agreed that the communities of Arlington and Shaftsbury are more similar than other potential partners, such as Bennington and Manchester. Culkeen did point out a potential hurdle in convincing Shaftsbury residents to vote to join Arlington would be the wider variety of extracurricular opportunities available at MAU, including sports offerings such as wrestling. A grandfather system would also have to be put in place so that students currently at MAU could finish their careers there, rather than having to change schools. One potential option, which Culkeen brought up, would be to make the new district school choice for middle and high school, which would mean the students could attend any of MAU, AMMHS, Burr and Burton Academy, or other area high schools. Shaftsbury also shares a teacher contract with the rest of the SVSU, and no one at the table was quite sure how potentially conflicting labor contracts would interact in the event of a merger. All of these matters, and more, would have to be studied before the boards could make a decision on whether consolidation would even be viable.
Smith made a list of all the potential barriers that would need to be studied, which he would bring back to his board and to BVSU superintendent Judy Pullinen, that included "financial, educational, extracurricular, special education, community emotion, transportation, and labor union."
"If you want to start to address topics that will come up with your communities, those are the ones," he said.
The Arlington Board is currently planning a community forum to discuss potential merger options with the residents of their town. The SVSU Act 46 study committee, which will meet again on Monday at 6 p.m. at the SVSU offices, is currently planning forums in each of the towns in the SVSU.