Windham Southeast schools back away from quick merger
GUILFORD — THERE LIKELY WON'T BE ANY SCHOOL MERGER VOTES IN THE NEAR FUTURE FOR ONE OF VERMONT'S BIGGEST SUPERVISORY UNIONS.
At a meeting Wednesday night, most members of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee said they believe it is no longer feasible to pursue an "accelerated" merger of all the union's school districts. Instead, they advocated taking more time to pursue other merger options.
The committee didn't vote on the matter, technically leaving the door open for further consideration of the new education law's most aggressive merger choice. But a majority of the committee members at Wednesday's meeting cited factors including time constraints and uncertainty about school closures and school choice as reasons to put on the brakes.
As if to underscore the indication that merger talks are slowing down, the Act 46 committee canceled its next scheduled meeting.
"There's so much to be resolved, so much to be answered, so much to be calculated — the time is acting against us at this point," committee member Mark Truhan said.
Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley, who has been a proponent of taking an accelerated merger proposal to voters by June 30, acknowledged after the meeting that it doesn't appear that will happen. For Stahley, the biggest issue is Vernon's school choice setup and the news Wednesday that the arrangement might have to fall by the wayside in a merger.
Vernon is unique among the union's districts: Starting in seventh grade, its students can be tuitioned to schools other than Brattleboro, including the nearby Pioneer Valley Regional School in northern Massachusetts.
Initially, state education officials had indicated that such an arrangement might be preserved even if Vernon merged with Windham Southeast districts that don't offer such choice. That's due to a 2006 law written specifically with Vernon in mind.
But last week, officials disclosed that new guidance from the state Agency of Education says Vernon cannot preserve its version of school choice unless it remains outside the proposed Windham Southeast merger structure.
"Once Vernon dissolves its district to become part of a unified district, then that law from 2006 is null and void," Stahley said.
That's a significant change.
"In terms of the time frame for the accelerated (merger) it's unlikely they're going to go forward with that, and I think the information about Vernon impacted that," Stahley said.
The Legislature approved Act 46 last year in an attempt to alleviate two concerns: First, education spending continues to rise, even as the state's school enrollment declines. Second, officials believe there is a lack of equality across Vermont in terms of students' educational opportunity.
One part of the controversial statute imposed limits on how much each district can increase its per-pupil spending without facing a steep penalty. That provision already has been tweaked and, so far, has shown mixed results.
Act 46 also makes a strong push for the formation of larger school districts by 2019. The first of those merger options — dubbed the accelerated process — envisions all districts in an existing supervisory union agreeing to merge into one new district governed by a single board.
That option carries the most financial incentives, with a 10-cent homestead property tax rate reduction in the first year and declining tax breaks in the four years following. But it also requires an affirmative vote in each affected town by June 30 of this year.
Administrators in Windham Southeast, which is the state's fifth-largest supervisory union in terms of enrollment, have lobbied for voter consideration of an accelerated merger. They say the new, much larger district could save money through economies of scale while more freely allocating resources in order to boost educational equality.
The union's Act 46 study committee, with members from Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon, has spent months gathering information on such a merger. But there were concerns from the start, with some fearing a loss of local control and choices for students.
Because an accelerated merger needs the approval of voters in each town, some say the Vernon situation is a deal-breaker. "Personally, I don't think an accelerated merger is going to fly," said Amy Wall, an Act 46 study committee representative from Dummerston. "I think there are too many variables, particularly with Vernon and school choice."
Others remain concerned that many questions about the impacts of an accelerated merger remain unanswered. That includes questions about future school closures within a merged district.
"It's a lot of time and expense for us to keep looking at an accelerated merger, and it prevents us from answering these questions," said Kristina Naylor, another committee member from Dummerston.
Stahley added that putting the accelerated schedule aside "gives us more time to really explore the language about school closures, because I don't know that we're getting the right information on this."
At Wednesday's meeting at Guilford Central School, seven of the 12 committee members indicated that an accelerated merger likely won't happen. Three others didn't endorse or reject it. Only two members — Brattleboro representatives Kim Price and Jill Stahl Tyler — said explicitly that they wanted to continue studying the accelerated option.
"There are people who don't want to do it, but there are people that do," Price said. "We need to represent everybody, and everybody should have a chance to vote."
The committee's general sentiment against an accelerated merger pleased some in the audience, including Steve Redmond, a Guilford School Board member who has lobbied against Act 46 mergers.
"If the board here, which has spent hours and hours studying all of these merger possibilities is not yet really understanding the implications of all these things, it would be really imprudent to ask the voters to make a decision, who have even less information about this," Redmond said.
Though accelerated merger talks are not entirely dead in Windham Southeast, it appears that, barring a dramatic reversal in the coming weeks, study committee members will turn their attention to other merger options. No fewer than eight such alternatives were jammed into a chart the committee distributed Wednesday night.
Discussion showed that early favorites included a "modified unified union school district" as well as a self-study option that would entail the supervisory union's member districts finding ways to meet Act 46 goals while maintaining their independence.
Some, including Stahley, expressed skepticism that state officials will allow Windham Southeast to maintain its current governance setup. But others want to pursue the self-study idea.
"I think our schools are pretty good, and I really think we can justify what we've been doing all along with a few tweaks," said Ian Torrey, a Brattleboro representative on the committee.
Alice Laughlin, a Putney representative who chairs the study committee, said Windham Southeast merger talks eventually may circle back to where they began. "I think, at the end of the day, we're going to end up more like the accelerated version than any of us suspect at this moment, no matter how we move forward," she said.
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