SHAFTSBURY — With the dissolution of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee, the Shaftsbury School District has found itself in a position to explore multiple consolidation options.
Fran Kinney, chairman of the Shaftsbury School Board, said he has received overtures from Arlington and Pownal about potential mergers since the study committee voted to dissolve last week.
"There's all these moving pieces," said board member Jeff Leake, who had represented Shaftsbury on the study committee, "and until we put all the moving pieces in a flow chart so we can see what it looks like for Shaftsbury and Bennington, or Shaftsbury and Arlington, or Shaftsbury, Pownal, and Arlington, and the pros and cons of each setup... You need to sit down and figure out what the pros and cons are." He said Arlington has a very clear idea of what its options are moving forward, and Shaftsbury needs to do the same.
To that end, Shaftsbury will hold a public forum on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the Shaftsbury Fire House to get input from the community on what the town's next steps should be. The SVSU will also hold its our forum the next week, on Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m. at the Bennington Fire House, and Superintendent Jim Culkeen encouraged Shaftsbury residents to attend that as well, to make sure their voices are heard by the larger group.
Culkeen said the SVSU finance office is working on creating financial models to predict what the effects would be if Shaftsbury did withdraw from the Mount Anthony Union School District, but he said those models aren't ready for public dissemination yet, and are somewhat unreliable because they can only work with current enrollment data. They cannot predict, should Shaftsbury leave, whether Shaftsbury students would still tuition into MAU, or in what numbers. Should Shaftsbury decide to leave MAU, the town would need to hold a special election asking voters about the question, and then every other town in the MAU would vote as well. If just one town voted no, Shaftsbury would not be allowed to leave. North Bennington, which is more actively seeking to leave so it can explore merging with other nearby school choice districts, faces the same hurdles.
"As you look around the state," said board member Dave Durfee, "there have been a lot of districts that have moved forward much farther than we have, including districts that are similar to ours. They have managed to get to a point where they're voting this November, and I'm wondering why didn't our Act 46 committee make any progress at all? Does it reflect the sentiment of the general population?"
"The initial round of meetings were a real push towards what would be called an alternative structure," answered Culkeen, "with arguments being made by members of the Act 46 study committee that we're consolidated enough the way we are, so let's make a case for that under the alternative structure model. We heard that repeatedly at those forums. Then the (Agency of Education) held a meeting early last spring in Brattleboro, and that's where members of the Act 46 study committee who attended heard for the first time that it was highly unlikely that the secretary of education and the state board of education would approve that."
He said discussion then turned toward creating a modified union district, similar to how MAU operates but pre-K through 12th grade, an idea that seemed to gain traction for a few meetings, even with the committee going so far as to ask consultant Steve Sanborn to draw up draft articles of agreement for a potential district. However, there were several problems with that model, including how North Bennington could fit in and whether voting on the district board, which would have replaced all other school boards in the SU, would be proportional to student population. Bennington, which controls about two-thirds of the students in the SVSU demanded proportional representation, while smaller towns such as Shaftsbury, which controls about 12 percent of the students, objected to that model.
"Part of the focus of Act 46 is the consolidation of governance," said Jessica Smith, who represented Shaftsbury as a community member on the study committee, "The issue as I understood it, is the proportional share of who sits around the table from each town and how much vote that they get. That became a sticky wicket because the modified union is going to have all of the money from all of the towns. So if Shaftsbury only has one voting member and Bennington has four voting members, those four voting members would be deciding how Shaftsbury taxpayers are spending and educating their students.
Culkeen said that a "hybrid board," which is not proportional and elected in the same way MAU members are elected, with each town being able to vote on all representatives, not just those from their own town, is allowable under state law. Bennington, however, was not interested in that configuration.
"I, like some of the people here, would have preferred that we'd have stayed organized, so that we could have formal discussions with a consultant," said Culkeen. Sanborn has said he will not continue working with the SU now that it has disbanded the committee. Culkeen said the committee cannot reform until North Bennington officially leaves the MAU. North Bennington has not yet warned a vote on the issue, and Culkeen worried that they might not be approaching the problem urgently now that the committee has disbanded.
"I've got two kids in this school, I don't want folks from Bennington figuring out how many tax dollars will be spent in this elementary school," said a Shaftsbury resident, who only identified himself as Scott, "I flat don't want it. Put it on record, tell the state, tell everybody."
Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.