It's yes, by a landslide

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MANCHESTER — After more than a year of hard work, the 17 members of the Northshire Merger Study Committee were rewarded Tuesday when they watched overwhelming vote margins pile up in all nine towns that will form the new Taconic and Green Regional School District.

"The numbers are preliminary, but all were so overwhelming that the merger passed in every town by at least a two-to-one margin," said Jon Wilson, who acted as chairman of the study committee. "Sunderland had the lowest margin, at 67 percent."

The strong support throughout the nine towns "showed that voters were confident in the plan we brought before them," he said.

Wilson said all 13 members of a new regional school board that will oversee the Taconic and Green district were elected unopposed. The board, which will replace individual town or district boards as of July 1, 2018, includes four members elected at large and nine town representatives.

"We are fortunate to have some great people on this board," Wilson said.

Over the next year, the board will meet to plan for the transition and hammer out policies and procedures for the new regional district.

The process that led up to this proposal involved multiple well-attended meetings of a study group with representatives from the nine towns over the course of a year. The school district merger is proposed under the Act 46 format and won approval in December from the State Board of Education.

Supporters of the merger plan pointed to the advantages of a larger kindergarten through 8th-grade system in which resources can be more efficiently allocated and a wider range of programs can be offered. The district will have about 1,700 students. Students from the district will have school choice in grades nine through 12.

Manchester voters had one last chance to debate the pros and cons of the proposed merger at the school portion of Manchester town meeting on Monday night, and many of the 71 voters in attendance made the most of their chance to ask questions, express their doubts or lend support to the plan.

The debate followed almost all of the warning agenda, in which voters approved Burr & Burton Academy's $16,700 per pupil tuition rate for the 2017-18 school year and briefly discussed the proposed $11 million school budget, which anticipates a tax rate of $1.6672 per $100 of valuation.

The school budget also passed Tuesday, by an unofficial margin of 603 to 281.

Manchester town meeting moderator W. Michael Nawrath stepped aside as moderator for the merger discussion and offered a sharp criticism of the proposal and its proposed governance structure, in which Manchester, the largest town in the district, would have one guaranteed seat on the board and as many as four at-large seats. That would put Manchester at a disadvantage in dealing with the district's smaller towns, he said, "and we can't change one word" if it passes.

"The tail will truly wag the dog," he said.

On the other side of the argument, merger study committee chairman Jon Wilson, when asked for advantages of the merger, pointed out that the budget volatility that smaller districts experience when students in grades 9-12 move in or out of town will be moderated by spreading costs across a larger district. He said the new district will be able to explore the possibility of a shared middle school, magnet school programs via intra-district choice and other shared resources.

Nawrath, in his remarks, pointed out that Sunderland school officials are using their current budget surplus to drive down their tax rate now so that they will pay less when the merger takes effect. He also noted that Sunderland expects that it will have a Spanish teacher in the merged district, because Dorset has one.

But a later speaker, Burr and Burton teacher Nancy Strain, pointed out that there's no reason Sunderland shouldn't have a Spanish teacher, perhaps sharing with other schools in a newly-merged district.

"Why shouldn't students in Sunderland have access ... that any other kid would have?" she said.

Other speakers said Manchester voters should wait until the merger plan is better understood, or not vote "yes" just because the state holds all the cards under Act 46, the law designed to encourage school district consolidation.

"When it's forced, it's wrong," Sylvia Jolivette said. "When it's meant to be and it's good enough it will happen naturally."

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