MANCHESTER >> A committee set up by the Manchester school board to explore other options beside Act 46-inspired mergers and consolidations has been formed, and is planning to hold a meeting Friday, Jan. 8 to begin charting its course forward.
Two current school directors — Mark Kaplan and Stephen Murphy — will join four other Manchester residents to see if they can come up with alternative scenarios that might better serve the town and school district from financial and educational standpoints, Murphy said Monday.
"This is a fact-finding committee," he said. "The whole purpose of doing this is to assemble the facts as we see them to be relevant."
The committee, which held an organizational meeting Dec. 30, hopes to have a report ready for the school board to consider in perhaps four months, although there is no fixed deadline for that, he said.
The other members of the committee are Bill Drunsic, Meg Kenny, Burr and Burton Academy's assistant head of school, Todd Nebraska and Mark Slade.
The Manchester school district voted to join in a merger study committee with several other school districts within the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union supervisory in early November. Set up under Act 46, a statute enacted last spring in the closing days of the previous legislative session, such merger study committees are tasked with exploring ways of consolidating the governance structures of the school districts to see if they can be reduced to a smaller number of school boards. Currently, the school districts of Manchester, Dorset, Sunderland, Danby, the Mountain Towns RED (Weston, Landgrove, Londonderry and Peru) and Mt. Tabor are involved in this initiative.
But the Manchester school board, concerned that there might be other alternatives worth studying that might fit Manchester's needs better, while retaining a higher degree of local control over their school district, voted on Nov. 28 to establish a second committee to examine options that might otherwise wind up outside the Act 46 box.
Among the options that could potentially be considered is whether the existing public school district should be restructured into a so-called "non-operating" school district, where the school district does not directly control or operate its own school. Several smaller districts in the area, such as Sandgate or Winhall, for example, don't operate their own public school, and tuition students to other districts. But since Manchester has the largest number of students of any or the area's school districts, completely closing down the Manchester Elementary Middle School and tuitioning out the roughly 380 students currently attending school there probably isn't a workable scenario, Murphy said.
But that leaves open the possibility it could be restructured as an independent school, which was mentioned as one possibility among others when the committee was established back in November.
"Should Manchester go 'non-operating,' there would have to be a replacement for MEMS," Murphy said.
The decision on whether to operate a school or not is a local decision, made by a local board, if approved by the electorate of the school district, said Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont's secretary of education, in an email to The Journal in response to a request for her comments on the "ad hoc" initiative.
"Any school district can decide to close its school and tuition its students under state law, for some or all grades," she stated. "Again, once a board closes its elementary school, it is up to parents to decide where their children attend school, and up to the district to provide the tuition vouchers to the schools those parents choose for their children to attend. My position is that school districts have the right under current statute to decide whether to operate a school or pay tuition for students and this is a decision appropriately vested with local communities."
The key determinants of whether Manchester should seriously undertake a restructuring of its present school district would rest on whether the evidence the committee gathers pointed to a good chance educational outcomes would be improved, costs could be stabilized or grow more slowly than they would otherwise, or both, Murphy said in a phone interview.
A public vote would be required before a school district could be restructured, he said.
The committee will look at the experience of other towns that have studied this question. North Bennington, which recently overhauled its school district and recreated its local elementary school as an independent entity was one example, but Murphy stressed it was not a model for Manchester or the only town or school district they would be looking at. If anything, Burr and Burton Academy's governance structure might make for a better comparison, he said.
"Act 46 opened up a Pandora's box," Murphy said. "They are charging us to find local solutions to what I understand to be a concern — the current system is not sustainable long-term, But it leaves open the possibilities of becoming 'non-operating' ,.. I think is in the interest of exploring all the options so we know we are making the right decision — and now is a great time to explore that."
The committee will hold its first meeting following its organizational one last week on Friday, Jan. 8, in the Jackie Parks Room at MEMS, It will begin at 6:30 p.m. Meetings will be open to the public.