ARLINGTON >> Representatives from five school districts gathered at Arlington Memorial Middle and High School on Monday to talk about potential futures under Act 46, the education bill of 2015.
The districts involved were Arlington, Manchester, North Bennington, Shaftsbury, and Winhall. Arlington is part of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, Manchester and Winhall are members of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, and North Bennington and Shaftsbury are a part of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. The superintendents of the BVSU and the SVSU, Judy Pullinen and Jim Culkeen, were also in attendance.
Arlington and Shaftsbury first met on Nov. 5 to discuss possible merger scenarios under the new law, which encourages boards to merge into Supervisory Districts of 900 or more students, or find alternative structures that similarly increase efficiency and equity in schools. All alternative structures must be approved by the Agency of Education, and districts that have not found themselves in approved structures by July 1, 2019 run the risk of being consolidated into neighboring districts by the state.
Matthew Patterson, of the North Bennington Prudential Committee, which operates the North Bennington Graded School District, which currently offers school choice for pre-K through sixth grade, and sends grades seven through 12 to Mount Anthony Union High School, said that his board was currently focused on gathering as much information as possible. "One thing we said is that we really wanted to sit down, not just with (Shaftsbury) or with Arlington, but really with anyone in this corridor north of Bennington, kind of to see where you're at," he said. He said that he and fellow board member Ray Mullineaux had a three hour conversation over breakfast with Shaftsbury board members Fran Kinney and Larry Johnson about Act 46, who had themselves recently met with Dawn Hoyt and K. John Smith of Arlington. Monday's meeting grew out of these smaller conversations.
Brian Vogel, chairman of the Manchester School Board, said that they have entered a formal study committee with some of the other towns in the BRSU, although it has not yet met. They have also discussed internally the possibility of becoming a pre-K through 12 sending district, in which all students would have school choice.
Winhall board chairman Scott Bushee said that there is significant interest in a merger between his district and Stratton, which is a non-operating pre-K through 12 district in the Windham Central Supervisory Union. Winhall also does not operate a school, and offers school choice to all of its students. "Virtually all of their students attend the same schools as the Winhall School District," he said, "It's a match made in heaven, as far as Act 46 is concerned." Under this scenario, Stratton would join Winhall as a single district, and a member of the BRSU, which would continue to exist in an alternate structure. He said that Sandgate, Ira, and Jamaica are all involved in those talks to some degree.
Bushee said that the primary goal of his district is to maintain choice for their students. Patterson said that, if an opportunity to leave Mount Anthony Union presented itself, the North Bennington board would be open to offering school choice to their seventh through twelfth grade students as well, which would make them a potential partner for Winhall and Stratton.
Johnson, of Shaftsbury, while he said he represented only a small part of the board, said that above all else, he was looking for alternatives. "We don't seem to have as many options as some of the others at this table," he said, noting that they have discussed exploring a potential merger with Arlington, as well as the possibility of following a route similar to North Bennington, who closed their public school and re-opened it as an independent school. They are also involved in the SVSU Act 46 study committee, which is exploring ways to maintain the current structure as an alternative district. Culkeen said that Act 46 could act as an escape hatch for districts like North Bennington and Shaftsbury, who might want to leave Mount Anthony Union to explore other options, although he stressed that this is not yet entirely clear in the law. Normally, a unanimous vote from the other towns in the union would be required for a district to leave.
Johnson said that he is a proponent of school choice, which he said opens up many more opportunities for students, and that he isn't satisfied with the current situation. "I think it's time to look for some things that will improve the results our children are able to achieve," he said.
Arlington said that they are looking for a consultant to perform a study regarding their options, said Pullinen. Hoyt said the consultant would crunch numbers regarding all of their different options, and that she would be in touch with the other boards after they had that information.