SUNDERLAND — The Northshire Merger Study Committee met last week and continues to make progress toward solidifying the districts' paths forward under Act 46, but it still faces many questions regarding its own districts and the other districts of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union.
Among the topics discussed by the committee were draft language regulating school closings and grade shuffling within member schools of the hypothetical new district, a grandfather clause to allow siblings to continue attending the same middle schools, and the creation community forums to get the word out about the committee's progress.
The committee, which was previously known as the Big RED (Regional Education District) Study Committee, is made up of representatives from Danby, Dorset, Manchester, Mount Tabor and Sunderland; and from the four communities in the Mountain Towns RED — Londonderry, Landgrove, Peru and Weston. The committee is one of three BRSU study committees that have formed to respond to Act 46 of 2015. The other BRSU Act 46 study committees are: The Non-Operating Districts Merger Committee, which is made up of Sandgate, Searsburg, Stratton, and Winhall, with North Bennington recently expressing interest in joining as well; and the Pawlet-Rupert-Wells Merger Committee, which is looking at options for the three districts with tuition agreements with New York schools.
Regarding community forums, committee members were torn as to whether they should hold off until they have more concrete answers to the financial questions that will undoubtedly arise, or if they should hold the forums soon, so as to get meaningful community input on how to proceed. One committee member was afraid that if they were too prepared going into the first round of forums, people might feel their opinions are not being listened to.
"What is the goal here," Chairman Jon Wilson asked the committee, "is it feedback or is it education?"
"The specific kind of feedback, like should we be a (supervisory district) or a (supervisory union), we're not going to get that," said another committee member, "The feedback is going to be 'I hate this law,' or 'I don't hate this law.' That type of specific feedback isn't what we're going to get. They're going to come expecting to ask questions... They're going to want us to be there with answers about how it's going to affect them."
The question of "SD or SU" centers on whether the districts in the committee should simply form their own K-6 operating supervisory district, and have complete control over the hiring of a superintendent and other administrators, or if they should form a supervisory union comprised of their own district; the non-operating districts merged into a single district; Pawlet, Rupert, Wells, and perhaps Middletown Springs merged into a single district; and perhaps Arlington.
"SD or SU, we have to decide soon," said Wilson.
BRSU Superintendent Jackie Wilson, who is Jon Wilson's mother, said Arlington is currently in a holding pattern waiting to see what the BRSU is going to do.
"Their plan A is to come be a part of your supervisory union, that's what they'd prefer," she said, "But they are starting to have conversations with Shaftsbury, but Shaftsbury, of course, is tied to Mount Anthony, so that's a whole other issue."
Jackie Wilson said there had also been recent controversy at the Pawlet-Rupert-Wells Merger Committee regarding the issue of school choice. Currently, the three towns designate school districts in New York where their students in grades 7-12 attend. However, some within those communities are considering a choice model for those grades, while others are concerned about the cost. "The issue was very hotly debated," said Wilson, who estimated about 200 people had been present at the previous week's meeting, on Sept. 1.
Some board members needed more time to consider the question, so they met again on Sept. 7. At that meeting, said Wilson, "They deliberated for a good hour and a half before a motion was made. Finally there was a motion made to choose choice as their enrollment option, and that did not pass, it was a 4-5 vote." She said both Rupert members and three Pawlet members voted against the motion, while the Wells delegation was "very much in support of choice."
Wells has pushed the issue, said Wilson, because nearby Middletown Springs has reached out to the Wells district regarding a potential merger, but the two districts are only compatible if they allow choice 7-12.
Due to the choice motion being voted down, Wells representatives requested that the study committee be dissolved and that they be allowed to leave so they could pursue discussions with Middletown Springs. Wilson said one of the Wells representatives made a strong case for staying together, and a Rupert representative changed her vote. After a motion to reconsider, the vote to adopt 7-12 choice passed. As Wilson was quick to point out, the communities will still need to approve the configuration once it is finalized, although most of the letters her office has received from constituents have been in favor of choice.
Former superintendent Dan French, who is acting as a consultant for all the BRSU committees, said that committee will now have the option to include Middletown Springs as an advisable district in the merger study, although he pointed out that what they will do is up in the air, as one member quit immediately following the contentious meeting, and another was considering quitting.
"We're not sure where the committee is at," said French, "but I think we'll let it sink in for a week, then meet again and see where we're at and what our options are going to be." He said the law is also unclear about how a district could be added to a committee, and that question will have to be addressed in the coming weeks.
The full recording of the meeting is available on Greater Northshire Access Television, and online at gnat-tv.org.
Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.