State-mandated school mergers and consolidation talks stir interest, controversy in the region

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Merging. Consolidating. Collaborating. For school districts across the region between the Berkshires and Southern Vermont, these concepts come with great potential, pose challenges, and in some instances, will not be a choice for local districts.

Vermont school officials are grappling with the aftermath of approving the 2015 law known as Act 46. Back then, the state offered so-called tax incentives for districts to merge by 2019 in a cost-savings campaign. Then, back in November 2018, the state Board of Education ordered dozens of districts to merge less populated districts into single pre-K-12 districts by July 1, and dissolve school boards to create new centralized bodies of governance. In response, multiple municipal lawsuits have since been filed alleging that to mandate schools to merge is unconstitutional.

In the Berkshires, while there are no state mandates to do so, several districts have started sharing administrators and services, and are devising operational cost-sharing plans. An independent entity called the Berkshire County Education Task Force is working on a feasibility study for consolidating the county's 17 public school district into a single-district model. Even more, the towns of Clarksburg, Mass. and Stamford, Vt. are exploring an interstate merger in this region.

To get a broader sense of what these proposals and changes mean for their respective communities, reporters took to their neighborhoods to talk with residents and school officials to gauge public perceptions. Here's what they've learned.

Brattleboro, Vt.

Compiled by Chris Mays

Brattleboro Reformer

Bill Anton, 48, superintendent of Windham Central Supervisory Union, has helped navigate Act 46 mergers of school districts in Dover and Wardsboro -- which is now the River Valleys Unified School District -- and districts in Brookline, Newfane, Jamaica and Townshend, collectively now known as West River Modified Union Education District. Both districts become operational July 1 and their mergers were approved by voters.

Q: How has the consolidation of boards in your supervisory union affected your work?

Anton: It has created greater opportunity for regional conversations about the future of education for our communities. It has put great stress on our business office in creating new entities, providing thoughtful information about the budgeting process, and delivering timely information for boards to consider. Consolidation of boards has created the need for greater systematic thinking and focus on the needs of all of our students. The consolidation of boards has created the need to reflect on board member roles and responsibilities.

Lucas Newton, 17, of Townshend, Leland & Gray Union High School student council vice chairman, and Hannah Landers, 14, of Townshend, student council secretary, both said they believe Act 46 is meant to provide more opportunities to students. Their school is part of the West River Modified Union Education District, whose board decided to send sixth graders from the elementary schools to Leland & Gray for middle school.

Q: How have students been affected by the merger?

Newton: As a senior here, I personally haven't felt any effects here. From what I hear, the middle schoolers tend to be more nervous about how they will interact with one another. I also heard, from middle schoolers and high schoolers and even some faculty, there might be even more division between the middle school and high school. I know parents of young kids might feel uncomfortable about close interaction between the age ranges.

Landers: From what I heard from middle schoolers mostly is they don't know if the sixth graders are necessarily ready to come up to the middle school level. I guess it depends how they prepare their kids in elementary school. When they do it the first year, there's going to be some kinks to work out because the sixth graders aren't going to be ready. The elementary schools will need to figure out how they can prepare them more to be at a higher level.

LeeAnn Jillson, 35, of Brookline, has a son who will be entering kindergarten at NewBrook Elementary next year. She was appointed in September to the NewBrook School Board that will become inactive July 1. As a parent, she regularly attends West River Modified Union Education District board meetings.

Q: How has the consolidation of boards in your district affected the schools?

Jillson: I think it is too soon to tell. There have been a lot of changes made in our district. Moving sixth grade from the elementary schools to Leland & Gray and [allowing elementary] school choice [within the district] could have a big impact.

Q: What are the pros?

Jillson: The biggest pro I have seen is that people are paying attention to what is going on in our local schools. I also like the idea of being able to expand the school meals plan that is currently at NewBrook to all the schools in the district. It is an extra expense that taxpayers certainly don't want to think of right now but my hope is that it will pay for itself in the future.

Q: Cons?

Jillson: While it may not be a direct result of the consolidation the budget is a definite con. We are reaching a point where to community won't be able to absorb the increases much longer. Currently on the proposed budget, maintenance is set to be deferred again as a way to keep the budget down but that won't work forever. We need to find a way to attract families to our district. We have an aging population in our region and a lot of them are on fixed income. We need some new blood to help revitalize our district.

Another potential con is school choice further reducing class sizes at different schools. Under the articles of agreement for our district, a school can't be closed unless that town votes to close it. At what point is the enrollment considered too low to be viable? I am against closing any of our small schools but at the same time how can the taxpayers be asked to fund a school with only 20 or so students? Thankfully, our numbers aren't that low but without an increase in school aged children in our district I feel that problem is inevitable.

Edith Slowe, 80, and Richard Slowe, 84, live in Vernon and have grandchildren attending local schools. Their district has not voluntarily merged or been forced to by the Vermont State Board of Education.

Q: What are your thoughts on Act 46?

Richard: It's gotta be consolidated. It's not equitable for a small town that doesn't have money. So I think consolidation in the long run would be good. The times have changed. The insurance, faculty and people — it's very expensive. It's a different time and small towns can't afford it.

Edith: While Gov. [Phil] Scott doesn't want to raise property taxes, they say, "We're not going to raise your property taxes but we are reassessing everybody's home." So what used to be $200,000 last year may be something like $250,000. So your taxes would go up. So it's almost like a smoke and mirrors deal.

Richard: It's expensive to live in this state.

Edith: I think the reason they don't like this Act 46 is because they will lose control. The school board will lose control of what happens at the school.

Bennington, Vt.

Compiled by Patricia LaBoeuf

Bennington Banner

Leon Johnson is the North Bennington representative on the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board and Mount Anthony Union School District Board member. The SVSU, he pointed out, has already merged and consolidated a lot of its efforts, including busing and food service.

Q: How do you feel about efforts for regionalization/consolidation as outlined by Act 46?

Johnson: It's a benefit to being able to have the school districts have a consolidated effort. We save money, we save time and we save efficiency.

He said the big issue involves equity. Some people want their districts to remain the way they are, but they also want grant money to go to them. "That's the biggest thing, I think, is to make sure that equity is actually done fair," Johnson said.

Heather Hassett owns Bringing You Vermont on Main Street in Bennington with her husband, Ryan Hassett. Hassett's four children, now in their late teens and twenties, all went through the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union schools.

Q: How do you feel about efforts for regionalization/consolidation, specifically Act 46?

Hassett: I think we're in a difficult position in this state. From an emotional standpoint, I struggle with regionalization [because each school is unique].

Sharon Stepp weighed in on the subject as she headed to check out at Willy's Variety in Bennington one weekday afternoon. Although she's raising a grandson who doesn't attend SVSU schools, Stepp said she has kept up with the news surrounding the Act 46 merger.

Q: How do you feel about efforts for regionalization/consolidation, specifically Act 46?

Stepp: "Cost-wise, they have to do it," said "It's not optional."

Stepp said she understands that small school communities love their way of doing things, and don't want to change.

Q: Will this help or hurt the community?

Stepp: "I think it's got to do something," she said. Stepp added that she'd like her taxes to go down, as she's retired. In theory, a merger could do that -- but she's not sure.

"You've got to look at the whole budget," she said.

Kimberly Tenner is the assistant principal of Molly Stark Elementary School, part of the Bennington School District, which has been ordered to merge with the Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford school districts to create a unified union elementary school district. She said she's in favor of consolidation. And not because of money.

Q: How do you feel about the merger efforts in this area, specifically under Act 46?

Tenner: "For me, it's about being a cohesive group," she said.

Tenner said she understands the need to save money, and how others feel differently about merging. "I also understand some people feel that they're going to [lose] some of the autonomy that they have with a smaller supervisory union, or a smaller district," she said.

Q: How might this merger affect Molly Stark Elementary School?

Tenner: We're [in] a large district as is. I just don't see it making a huge difference. I think we're already a cohesive group.

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Christopher Mayer, a senior at Mount Anthony Union High School, said he believes Act 46 was formed with positive intent.

Q: How do you feel about the Act 46 merger?

Mayer: "I believe it has good merit," he said, adding that he thinks elementary school students should probably be okay with the merger.

He said he is concerned about the effect of the merger on teachers.

"Are they going to stay employed? Or are we going to lose some good teachers?"

If a merger results in more students per teacher, he said, that could mean less one-on-one time.

"It all depends on how we execute it," he said.

Micheal Nolan, a third-grade teacher at Molly Stark Elementary School, has been working for the Bennington district for about 17 years. He said it's important to put the students' best interests first. With a merger, he said, he understands it would make it easier to better allocate funds for services like special and education.

Q: How do you feel about the planned merger of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford districts?

Nolan: Under Act 46, the new district could form magnet schools with focuses on things like the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics or the arts, he said.

Or, there could be different buildings for different grade levels.

"And it could also avoid closing smaller schools that way, as well," he said.

Some teachers, he said, are concerned about how merging to form a new district might affect teachers' seniority. But most aren't too concerned about it, he said. And neither is he.

Southern Berkshire County, Mass.

Compiled by Heather Bellow

The Berkshire Eagle

Miki Reuchlin, 77, of West Stockbridge, stepping out of the bank, said that while she hasn't given consolidation much thought, she said that, generally, she thinks it's important for communities to have their own schools.

Q: What do you think about the idea of local schools merging and consolidating services?

Reuchlin: "I understand about economies of scale and mergers. But to be way out in a huge building?" she said, of the large, isolated school buildings brought about by regionalization in the last 50 years.

Jonathan Rosen, 52, of Great Barrington, has two children, 13 and 17, who attend schools in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. Both boys had previously attended two smaller schools in a neighboring district, both in New Marlborough, and in the South Egremont schoolhouse.

Q: What do you think about the idea of local schools merging and consolidating services?

A: Rosen said that as long as there is still the "important alternative" of the small town schools for younger children, he would support a consolidation effort of, say, the Mt. Everett Regional High School and Berkshire Hills' campuses.

While the matter of maintaining a school's traditions and pride usually fires up opposition to consolidation, Rosen brushed this off. Time would take care of it, he said, "The pride will subside."

Carly Terranova, 17, of Great Barrington, is a senior at Monument Mountain Regional High School. She points to the social benefits of a consolidation effort, since students from Monument Mountain often socialize with students from nearby Mount Everett High in Sheffield.

Q: What do you think are the benefits of consolidation?

Terranova: "I feel that more people would know each other and that would be a better environment," she said, adding that there might be an adjustment.

Some of this, she said, is specific to the atmosphere at her school.

"At Monument, people isolate into their own groups a bit, though everyone is friendly for the most part."

Q: Do you think school pride gets lost with consolidation?

A: Terranova, who races for the Monument Ski Team, said that the issue of school pride might not be much of an issue, particularly with sports. Already, students from neighboring districts are on the Monument football team together, and the Mount Everett hockey team is composed of students from Monument and other schools, she said.

In Terranova's eyes, consolidation might even improve Monument's school spirit.

"School spirit isn't the best at Monument," she said.

Under a shared cost and services plan, Peter Dillon now serves as the superintendent of both Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the two districts of Shaker Mountain School Union.

Q: What do you think about the idea of local schools merging and consolidating services?

Dillon: "There are always informal conversations about consolidation, but no actual real talks," Dillon said, noting that districts are doing everything but that by sharing services and collaborating in other ways. He says all these little steps pave the way for an eventual physical merger.

"But it's something that makes some folks quite nervous," he said.

Q: Why?

Dillon: "All of those experiments in doing that set up building the level of trust so you can have a conversation about it," he said of the collaborations in a region with dropping populations, particularly of the young, which chips away at enrollment needed to keep a school district running strong financially.

"What may be the real catalyst for this is when some enrollments drop in some communities to where they have to have a partner," he said.

Stephen Bannon, 60, chairman, Berkshire Hills School Committee has been on the Berkshire Hills Regional School District's School Committee since 1997. He said school officials in the area have been talking about consolidation as long as he has been on the Committee. And in the last 10 years, Berkshire Hills officials have been open to the consolidation conversation with any other district that wants to have it.

Q: What are the challenges to talking about consolidation?

Bannon: Resistance to actually, physically, merging schools tends to hinge on two things: transportation and school identity and pride, he said, quoting a former committee member who sat in talks years ago.

"She said, "You know it's going nowhere when they bring up the mascot in the first meeting,"" Bannon recalled. "Everyone's worried about identity instead of maybe focusing on what's best five to 10 years from now on the education of the student."

Distances in a rural county are another concern.

"Transportation is big," Bannon said. "The two farthest points in Southern Berkshire [County] can be a very long bus ride."

Yet, this worry is mostly confined to elementary students.

"Parents and educators have always felt they needed to stay in their communities," he said.

Q: What are the benefits to merging?

Bannon: The benefits are clear, he noted, and include more robust budgets and class offerings. "One reason we take school choice students is to fill up classes with empty seats, and get revenue from that," he said of the state's program that allows a student to go to school outside their home district.

Overall, Bannon said he's for consolidation, under the right conditions.

"In the appropriate circumstance where both districts and towns are losing population, where geography allows transportation of students in a fashion that doesn't inhibit education, and where we can show a cost savings and not affect education," he said.


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