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School districts in Newfane and Brookline joined to form NewBrook Elementary in Windham Central Supervisory Union. Officials now are considering further mergers under Act 46, the state’s new education-governance law.

Town and Village

Union boards hedge on Act 46 mergers

TOWNSHEND—Geographically speaking, the sprawling Windham Central Supervisory Union is one of Vermont’s biggest, taking in both the West River Valley and mountain ski areas. Its organizational chart – consisting of 12 boards and eight schools linked by a tangle of lines – seems to barely fit on a single page.

So, even as all Vermont school administrators struggle with how to comply with sweeping governance changes proposed in the state’s newly approved Act 46, that struggle seems all the more daunting in Windham Central.

Board members are divided on the way forward, but they have come to agreement on one issue: The supervisory union won’t be pursuing the state’s “accelerated” process for school district mergers, which has the biggest tax breaks but requires member districts to vote on a merger in a matter of months.

That decision gives the boards more time to talk through options that may include forming multiple new districts that could blur the union’s current lines.

“Since we took the accelerated (merger) off the table, it gives us a lot more breathing room,” Richard Werner, chair of both the Windham Central and Dover school boards, said at a recent, lengthy discussion meeting on Act 46.

Added Windham Central Superintendent Steven John in a later interview: “There are a lot of theoretical possibilities … (now) you’ve got to sort through what’s acceptable to your public.”

Act 46, approved by the Vermont Legislature and signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year, is an attempt to address two vexing problems in the state’s public-education system: First, enrollment is dropping while costs continue to rise, driving up taxes; and second, in spite of a complex school-financing system, officials say there is a lack of equality in Vermont students’ learning opportunities.

The new law placed variable caps on school-budget growth in an attempt to contain costs in the short term. More importantly, Act 46 pushes school boards toward mergers with their neighbors no later than 2019 in an attempt to trim the state’s unwieldy governance structures, save money, and increase student opportunities and achievement.

The state has not dictated one way forward for those mergers but rather has set forth a variety of options that even state Rep. Oliver Olsen, I-Londonderry, acknowledges are “incredibly confusing.”

“The reason this is so convoluted is that what we have in front of us today, as it exists today, is a very convoluted system. It’s akin to untangling a bunch of Christmas tree lights and trying to get them reorganized,” Olsen told Windham Central officials at an Oct. 28 meeting. “It is not an easy task. It’s a really big lift that we’ve asked of our school boards and our communities.”

At that meeting, held at Mount Snow, board members talked through the Act 46 merger options and decided that the accelerated process – by which member districts of a supervisory union unite into a single district with one board and a recommended enrollment of at least 900 – won’t work in Windham Central. The accelerated merger requires a vote by July 1, 2016, with the new district becoming operational no later than a year after that.

John said the supervisory union’s diverse structure is a clear obstacle to taking such quick action. There are five member towns with elementary schools (including the merged NewBrook Elementary) feeding students directly into Leland & Gray Union Middle and High Schools; two pre-K-through-6 elementaries (Dover and Wardsboro) with school choice for middle and high school; and a K-through-8 school in Marlboro.

That list doesn’t include the Windham Central town of Stratton, which has its own school board but no school and tuitions all of its students to other towns.

“To consider them all doing something together is out of the question,” John said.

At the Oct. 28 meeting. there was more enthusiasm for studying a “side-by-side” merger process that would allow formation of multiple districts. Such a merger would fall under Act 46’s so-called “conventional” pathway, would still qualify for financial incentives, and would require a vote by July 1, 2017, with the new governance structures taking effect in 2019.

A side-by-side merger also can allow the merging districts to sidestep any conflicts with state law regarding school choice, which has been a sticking point and source of confusion under Act 46.

“This provision – the side-by-side provision – is really kind of a key piece for those districts that want to either preserve operating a school or preserve school choice but don’t want to sort of commingle districts (with differing structures),” Olsen said. “ This is really the key to get there.”

One side-by-side scenario that’s been preliminarily discussed in Windham Central would have the Leland & Gray union towns – Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham – uniting to form a single-board district. Simultaneously, Wardsboro and Dover could merge into a separate district.

But that hypothetical scenario still leaves Stratton and Marlboro out of the mix. Because Marlboro is the only K-8 school in Windham Central, the town’s school board is looking at all options “and talking to schools outside the district, as well,” Chairwoman Jen Carr said.

As for Stratton, John said officials in that town have talked with other, all-tuition school boards outside Windham Central.

Those divergent paths have led Windham Central officials to refrain from undertaking a study of any Act 46 merger option. Rather, they’ll discuss the matter again at a meeting before year’s end.

There is common ground within the supervisory union. Werner said an exercise in which boards listed their priorities showed that “there wasn’t a lot of disparity.” But the supervisory union’s recent history, along with board members’ Act 46 discussion last month, indicates that there could be obstacles to any merger process in Windham Central.

On the history side, the five Leland & Gray union towns spent years studying a “regional education district” merger before the effort came to a halt in 2014 without a vote. That was in part due to the fact that new, statewide school-governance regulations were on the way. But there also had been controversy, and school officials in Windham had pulled out of the process in favor of maintaining their independence.

Windham School Board Chairwoman Carolyn Partridge, who also is a state lawmaker, is not yet sold on the idea that Act 46 mergers will be any more-effective than past attempts. “I don’t see how this – making us choose one of these scenarios that these guys came up with – is going to help kids do better,” Partridge said.

The proposed “side-by-side” merger may be the most-viable for Windham Central, but it may not attract widespread support, said Stephanie Amyot, Jamaica’s school board chairwoman. “Our town, actually, is pretty divided and has some very strong opinions,” Amyot said.

The first step toward any Act 46 merger is to form a study committee. But some are worried about taking even that preliminary step given lingering uncertainties about the law.

“I don’t understand, honestly, why anyone would join a study committee right now when we don’t know specifically and exactly what we’re committing to,” Carr said.

There is, however, the stick that comes with Act 46’s carrots: While mergers are not mandatory, districts that do nothing will, by 2018, have their fate decided by the state Board of Education.

“While there is a choice to do nothing, it’s nothing anyone should bank on in terms of the outcome they seek,” John said. “If you want to control your outcome, you’ve got to study something and see how you can get what you want.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #331 (Wednesday, November 11, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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