BVSU officials call Board of Education letter frustrating, inexcusable

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Local education officials are expressing dismay, frustration and confusion in response to a letter from the state Board of Education instructing the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union to initiate transition work in a planned merger, in the midst of a pandemic that has placed unprecedented demands on schools and students.

Arlington School District Board Chair Todd Wilkins has confirmed the board plans to seek an extension of the required July 1, 2021 merger date with the SVSU.

But the state board letter, signed by Chair John Carroll, states that two supervisory unions should "initiate all transition activities necessary" to merge, emphasizing that the state board "does not intend to reconsider" the substance of the order or extend the 2021 deadline.

SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen confirmed at an SVSU board meeting on April 22 that both he and Board Chair Dick Frantz had received the letter.

In an emailed statement, Culkeen said he was not expecting the letter from the state board at this time, and his preference would be to have a delay in the merger, due to the financial impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that has spread across the country.

The Arlington and Sandgate school districts, which make up the BVSU, were previously ordered by the state board to become part of the SVSU as of July 1, 2021.

Bill Bazyk, superintendent of the BVSU, also said he was "kind of shocked" to get this letter from the state board.

"This is something that they've never dealt with, ever, and our schools are bogged down with work that is unbelievable," he said, referring to the statewide transition to remote learning in response to COVID-19.

Gov. Phil Scott has ordered all schools to close for in-person instruction for the remainder of the academic year.

"Certainly, a merger in 2021, over a year away, is not our priority right now," Bazyk said. "It was kind of bizarre to get a letter from the [state board] in the middle of a COVID crisis We're going to take [the letter] as how it was written, but more importantly, we need to deal with the here and now."

The letter is addressed to Bazyk, Culkeen, Frantz, Wilkins and Nicol Whalen, chair of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union Board and Jeanne Zoppel, chair of the Sandgate School District board.

At the state board's March 18 meeting, the letter states, the board discussed the "apparent lack of progress" towards achieving full operations on July 1, 2021 as a single SU.

"The board is concerned that further delay in moving toward a merged SU may impact the education provided to students in the region," Carroll states in the letter. "Accordingly, the Board has instructed me to communicate with you to urge the two supervisory unions to initiate all transition activities necessary the Board directed me to emphasize that it does not intend to reconsider the substance of the November 2018 order nor to extend the 2021 deadline."

According to the meeting minutes, board member Oliver Olsen said the absence of activity on the merger made him uncomfortable, and "there may be a request forthcoming [for] another extension or some change."

According to the minutes, Olsen said his concern is the impact to the students in the region, and he suggested "making it clear they must proceed against that timeline and no further extension will be granted."

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The board unanimously agreed to ask Carroll to send the letter.

Both Frantz and Wilkins have criticized Olsen's statements regarding the merger.

"I don't wish to stir up a firestorm on the State Board, because that will make things more difficult for our administrations going forward," Frantz said in an email. "Nor do I know Oliver Olsen. However, as I read the minutes of the [state Board of Education] meeting in March, it was clear to me that Mr. Olsen is the driver on the letter, and also clear that he preferred not to have any board discussion about it at that meeting."

In an email, Olsen said there is "considerable history" involving the BVSU and various extensions of merger activity, and the request for an update "did not come out of the blue."

It had been discussed at a previous meeting of the state Board of Education in February, and after some fact-finding with the Agency of Education, the subject was placed on the agenda and discussed again at the March meeting, he said.

Olsen also said he would not comment on "personal characteristics."

Franz also confirmed that the SVSU board has not taken a vote regarding signing on to the ASD's request for an extension of the merger.

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Early on, Frantz said he told Wilkins he would be willing to sign on to a request for an extension.

But the SVSU board did not hold another meeting until April 22 — the date the letter was received from the state board.

"While I support ASD's efforts, our board has not seen their new letter and will not be meeting again to consider it until later this month, unless we meet for emergency reasons," Franz said in a May 1 email.

"Based on the minutes from the BOE March 18th meeting, it is my opinion this is being pushed by one member of the board with an agenda," Wilkins said in an email. "It is also my opinion that the role of a BOE board member is to ensure equal access for all student[s] to quality public education and this letter does nothing to support that."

Despite objections about the timing of its decision, the state board voted in November 2018 to make the Arlington and Sandgate school districts part of the SVSU.

Both involved supervisory unions unsuccessfully sought a six-month delay to study the idea of moving the Arlington and Sandgate districts into the SVSU.

Both also requested that, if the plan was approved, no redrawing of boundaries be made before 2021; that request was granted. The initial proposal had been for the new supervisory union to be operational July 1, 2020.

In early March, the Arlington School District board discussed the possibility of requesting additional time for the transition to the SVSU with state education officials, including Secretary of Education Dan French, Wilkins said in an email.

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Based on that conversation, they were in the process of discussing with all boards about sending a request for an extension, and drafted a letter which was being shared with all boards, he said.

That letter has not yet been sent to the state board, he said, as due to COVID-19, some meetings were cancelled and "our focuses shifted to the crisis at hand," he said in the email.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought even more challenges for schools to deal with, and boards, administrators and teachers should be completely focused on providing quality remote education and preparing to bring students back in the fall, Wilkins said in an email.

We will need to deal with educational and potential huge financial impacts coming at us over the next year or two," he said. " We should not have to worry about merging supervisory unions at this current time; in my opinion, there is plenty of time for that down the road."

At the Arlington School District board's meeting on April 29, Whalen, a board member, criticized the state Board of Education for not reaching out for an update about the merger, if there were truly concerns about the process or the transition timeline.

"Instead of allowing the one person who raised the issue completely out of the blue at a meeting that resulted in a letter that does not take into account any of what has actually been happening, and certainly does not take into account all of the extraordinary circumstances that the schools are under right now, with the response to the distance learning," she said. "There isn't anything about the way this played out that is professional, appropriate, considerate. It's extremely frustrating."

At that meeting, Wilkins said the timing of this letter, in the midst of what all schools are dealing with, is "simply inexcusable."

He said he hopes community members read the letter, and the March 18 meeting minutes, and "make a judgment call for themselves."

Wilkins said he was most upset by the letter's allusion that "somehow, we [are] affecting kids' educations by not pushing this SVSU merger."

That is "so far from [true]," he said, it's "disgusting."

"To even imply that we're having some effect on kids' education is foolishness," he said. "I'd love to hear specifically from the Board and the individual who authored this letter exactly how he feels that we are having some sort of effect on kids' education that's negative."

He said BVSU understands they will become part of the SVSU.

But, he said, they want to get it right — because getting it wrong would have an effect on students' education.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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