BENNINGTON >> The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Act 46 study committee met on Monday, and discussed some of the potential pros and cons of consolidation.
Superintendent Jim Culkeen passed around a worksheet, which eventually will be presented to parents and other community members, and asked board members to consider the question, "What are the future possibilities for working together to improve our efficiency, effectiveness, and educational quality?" and about their current concerns. He also asked committee members to share any obstacles they saw in reaching some of the future possibilities.
The study committee is a required part of the 2015 education act, and all members of the SVSU are participating. However, involvement in the study committee does not prevent districts from speaking with other districts outside of the SU. Shaftsbury had an initial meeting to discuss possibilities with Arlington, part of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, last week, and North Bennington has been speaking with other districts that could be more compatible with its method of school choice. The committee is made up of Chairwoman Jackie Prue, of Bennington, Ken Swierad, of Bennington, George Sleeman, of Bennington, Dick Franz, of Woodford, Jim O'Connor, of Pownal, Matthew Patterson, of North Bennington, and Jeffrey Leake of Shaftsbury.
Sweirad brought up the potential benefit of being able to shift teachers around between schools to meet needs, "As the superintendent has complained about, we can't shift a teacher from Shaftsbury to Pownal or vice-versa," he said, "That would be a nice thing."
It was noted that by shifting a teacher, schools could avoid a potential layoff, and keep good teachers within the SU. O'Connor, who has been outspokenly supportive of individual districts maintaining their sovereignty throughout this process, noted that they could theoretically centralize this service without dissolving the individual districts.
Prue pointed out that this idea could apply to students as well; if one school had an unusually large second grade class, and another had an unusually small second grade class, parents could be given the choice to have them switch schools.
Sleeman pointed out facilities, maintenance, and transportation as other areas where having a centralized service could lead to cost savings. O'Connor agreed, arguing that principals were spending time on issues such as roofs and windows for their buildings, when that work could be done more efficiently by a centralized group overseen by the SU.
Educational opportunities could also be improved, said Leake, who noted that some schools have math specialists, for example, while others do not, and those resources could be shared more evenly, along with extracurricular activities.
As a potential obstacle that would need to be overcome, Franz brought up that many town charters across the state call for towns to provide education to their residents, and wasn't sure how those would interact with the idea of a single district for the region. Patterson was also concerned that, after merging, the new district board could vote to close schools in member towns. Culkeen responded that the new district's charter could be written in such a way as to prevent that from happening.
"In a bigger setting you get one-size-fits-all, and I don't think that's what Vermont is all about, and I don't think that's what we want to do," said Franz, regarding the possibility of some time in the future consolidating elementary schools in the same way regional middle and high schools were consolidated into the Mount Anthony Union district in the past.
"I don't think its right for the SU," agreed Jackie Prue, "and where would we get the money?"
Moving forward, the study committee will be holding meetings in each of the communities in the SVSU, rather than at central office. The tentative plan is to begin in Pownal on Nov. 30, and have a second meeting in Shaftsbury on Dec. 14, although Culkeen said he would need to make sure that the buildings were available on those dates.
Sweirad said it was up to the committee to get the word out, "We need to send things home with kids, notify the select boards. We want 50-60 people, not five to six."
In the meantime, Culkeen encouraged board members to reach out to members of their communities about ways they would like to see the Act 46 process go, and ways they would not like to see it go, saying, "No idea is too wild, and the more people we talk to, the more ideas we'll hear."