Act 46: Merger study discussions advance

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DANBY — Area school districts are moving quickly to fill in slots on a merger study committee being formed under Act 46, the education governance reform statute passed last year.

Some, like the Mountain Towns RED, which includes Landgrove, Weston, Peru and Londonderry, have selected the four members to what will eventually be a 17-member committee formed from current Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union districts that include Manchester, Dorset, Danby, Mt. Tabor, Sunderland and the Mountain Towns RED.

Others, like Manchester, which will have five members, and Dorset, which will have three, are recruiting or reviewing candidates. Each school district will be represented by at least one sitting school director and at least one community member, except for one lonely representative from Mt. Tabor. School officials expect the first meeting of this merger study committee will be held in the second half of April.

The merger study committee will discuss the issues, benefits and incentives available for such a merger of school boards. If eventually approved, it would form a K-8 district with school choice from grades 9-12. Under this scenario, the existing schools in all the towns would remain open — the consolidation is only a school governance matter. The catch for some of the smaller towns, like Sunderland, Danby and Mt. Tabor, is that they would have to give up school choice at the grades 7-8 level. Students from those towns would have the option of attending Flood Brook in Londonderry, or Dorset or Manchester, before they reacquire school choice at grade 9.

This merger, if eventually approved, would in effect create a new regional educational district, or RED, within the BRSU. If in place by July 1, 2017, it would qualify for four year's of tax reductions on a sliding scale from 8 cents to 2 cents starting the year after the merger.

But this is not the only option or the only merger study committee that may emerge. Act 46 offers school districts choices, some of them complex ones. And there's always the option of doing nothing, but that would leave the state board of education in a position to make that choice for them if a case for remaining independent is not viewed favorably.

The clock is ticking as well. By July 1, 2017, school districts and communities will need to have a plan developed by their merger study committees approved by the state board of education and signed off on by their voters in order to qualify for the available tax incentives designed to nudge the process forward.

It was with an eye towards exploring what other options might be open beyond the BRSU-based merger study committee that members of the Sunderland, Mt. Tabor and Danby school boards met with their counterparts from Middletown Springs Monday night at the Currier School in Danby to discuss the "what ifs" of a merger between these districts.

Like the three districts presently in the BRSU, Middletown Springs currently operates a K-6 school and offers school choice afterwards, said Chris Smid, a Middletown Springs board member.

"We're looking for like-minded folks who have a similar arrangement and interested in some sort of collaboration going forward," he said. "We're here to see if there's interest."

School choice is highly prized in Middletown Springs, and the notion of four smaller schools or school districts coming together in a partnership could mean that none of them would be overwhelmed by larger members who might be involved in other merger scenarios, he added.

Daniel French, the school superintendent of the BRSU, said he thought the easiest way for the four districts to consider a merger might be by enlarging the current Union District #23, which consists of Danby and Mt. Tabor. That would still leave them short of the minimum number of students to qualify for a supervisory union, and would be something they would have to tackle later on.

But time was not on their side, either, he said. In order to get a plan developed that would be approved by the state board of education and the voters by a year from July 1, the Sunderland, Danby and Mt. Tabor representatives would need to figure out if this was a serious direction for them.

"What's driving that are the incentive options," he said. "If your voters are OK with you walking away from four years of tax incentives, then feel free to take your time," he said to general laughter.

Mary Van Vleck, a board member from Sunderland, said that she was resentful that their board, after completing much of the centralizing of administrative services with the BRSU central office and consolidating operations, was potentially going to have to revamp that again.

"I don't know how we would start over again," she said. "There are so many unanswered questions."

Gordon Woodrow, who recently stepped down as the board chairman in Sunderland and is now working in a consulting role on Act 46 for the Vermont School Boards Association, the superintendent's association and the school board's insurance trust, said board members would need to be able to go back to their districts later on and say they had explored all the options.

When the merger study committees get underway in April, options will narrow, he said.

"Once that (the merger study committee) kicks in, everbody's going to need to get on the ship or find a lifeboat," he said.

Meanwhile, from the perspective of the Mountain Towns RED, Dorset and Manchester, that ship is being prepared.

The RED districts selected their four members earlier this week. After holding some discussions with towns like Jamaica and Townshend, Jon Mowry, the board chairman of the RED, said they were hopeful a new RED could be formed with them and the other BRSU districts to keep the current group more or less together.

"We don't have a lot of incentives to leave the BRSU," he said. "We have no appetite for changing."

Dorset's board is anticipating finalizing its two community members who will accompany board member Jim Mirenda, said David Chandler, the chairman of their board, who added the selection process seemed to have gone well.

Manchester hopes to name the three community members that will serve as its delegation to the merger study committee by April 11, during that evening's board meeting, said newly installed Board Chairman Jon Wilson.

The board is still gathering names and applications to see who will join him and newly elected school director Jim Lind, who will be part of the group from Manchester.

"We have some unique opportunities in the coming year to explore options with our neighboring towns," Wilson said. "The board has worked hard to educate itself and others in the community, and now we are prepared for the next phase. While the growth rate caps of Act 46 may have created a negative association for many with the legislation, the board hopes that as a larger community we can look towards the future and optimistically turn these new challenges into opportunities."


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