MARLBORO—When it comes to dealing with the complexities and controversies of Vermont’s new education law, Marlboro School Board members believe there is strength in numbers.
That’s why they’ll be asking voters, in a special meeting scheduled for Jan. 4, to expand the town school board from three members to five.
It may seem like a counterintuitive move given that, when the sweeping education-governance changes proposed in Act 46 take effect, there may not be a Marlboro School Board – at least, not in its current form.
But Marlboro officials say a board expansion would accomplish two goals: It would “expand the voice of community members,” while also giving the board more manpower to deal with an increasing number of meetings and responsibilities under Act 46.
“It’s also just to do the general legwork, because the state has now put another layer of work on boards that are already volunteering their time,” said Doug Korb, Marlboro school board’s vice chairman.
Act 46 is the state Legislature’s attempt to reduce educational costs while improving educational quality. The 2015 law attempts to streamline Vermont’s unwieldy educational-governance system by calling for creation of larger school districts, with new boundaries taking effect by 2019.
School boards statewide are supposed to be talking with their neighbors and studying new governance configurations. But there are no easy answers for some districts, and Marlboro may be a good example: It is the only K-8 school in Windham Central Supervisory Union, leading officials to consider merger options both within and outside the current supervisory union boundaries.
“We are a district that has a lot of options but not a lot of people to pair up with,” Korb said.
“We want to make an effective proposal,” he added. “What that looks like, we don’t know yet.”
The Marlboro board started talking about Act 46 when it was a bill moving through the Legislature in the spring. In October, the board held a public forum on the topic and asked for volunteers to serve on a special Act 46 subcommittee in town. The idea is that the subcommittee will meet biweekly, and Korb said nine people have expressed interest.
In spite of the groundwork already laid by the school board, “we’re really just starting the process,” Korb acknowledged. “Even though it’s been six months, we feel like we’re just now gathering a group of people to focus on this.”
That focus could be intensified, some say, by bringing more school directors into the mix in Marlboro. So the board has voted to warn a special town meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 4 at the school to consider whether the board should expand to five members.
If that article is approved, the three current board members will appoint two additional members to serve only until Town Meeting Day on March 1. That’s when Marlboro voters would elect school directors to fill the newly created one- and two-year terms.
A “no” vote at the Jan. 4 meeting would leave the board in its current configuration, with no other changes proposed.
In a short message explaining the special meeting to voters, the school board cited the “monumental and momentous task” of complying with Act 46.
In addition to general administrative and budgetary work already performed by the school board, current members wrote that “the addition of two more board members can help the board attend the many meetings and discussions Act 46 requires within our region and beyond.”
With an expanded board, Korb said, “if I have an emergency and can’t make a meeting, there’s another person who can possibly attend that meeting.”
Board members also are seeking “as diverse a community as possible” to tackle Act 46 topics. Adding more voices to that discussion, officials said, can’t hurt.
It’s not clear whether there will be any financial aspect to the debate. Marlboro’s board members are paid $1,000 each in this year’s budget, so adding two new members increases that total from $3,000 to $5,000 if the current stipends are preserved in next year’s spending plan.
Percentage-wise, that’s not a big jump in a budget that’s set at just under $2.7 million for the 2015-16 school year. And Korb believes it’s a small price to pay to have a more vigorous board debate in upcoming redistricting discussions.
“You want the school board to be making the right decision and to be as functional as possible,” he said.
Windham Central Superintendent Steven John supports Marlboro’s push to “broaden representation” on the school board, saying “all of us realize how much work lies ahead as Marlboro decides what steps to take.”
As school officials across the state wrestle with Act 46 implementation, Marlboro’s solution may be unique.
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard of a board (expanding),” said Nicole Mace, Vermont School Boards Association executive director. “But it’s the first time in the context of Act 46.”
She added, though, that “there are a lot of demands being placed on school boards, so it’s not surprising that boards are getting creative.”
In order to help school boards deal with Act 46, Mace said her association is supplementing Agency of Education materials with its own fact sheets and presentations.
Also, the school boards association has partnered with the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust and the Vermont Superintendents Association to create the Act 46 Implementation Project, which is headed by Director Nikki South.
Mace also has been fielding many Act 46 inquiries. “It’s been sort of an all-hands-on-deck situation,” she said.