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Crafting merger plan, Windham Central seeks public's help

TOWNSHEND—Two Act 46 study committees are putting in long hours, trying to craft a complex, “side-by-side” school district merger proposal involving eight towns in the sprawling Windham Central Supervisory Union.

Lately, committee members also have been putting in extra effort to get the word out via videos, new websites, emails, and brochures that were available Nov. 8 when voters went to the polls for the general election.

Though there won’t be a vote on the school merger proposals until March, some are concerned that there’s been a relatively low amount of public participation in an important debate about the future of education in the West River Valley.

“We’re still trying to get input from the public,” said Richard Werner, a Dover resident who is chairing one of the study committees. “That’s the big thing that we really need.”

Windham Central officials took their time in figuring out how to approach Act 46, the controversial 2015 law that pushes for school district consolidation in an attempt to cut costs and boost educational opportunity.

Time for deliberation

The size of the union and its educational diversity — there are a dozen school boards overseeing varying levels of school choice — made it difficult to pursue any one merger solution for the union. About a year ago, Windham Central’s board decided to forego the state’s “accelerated merger” Act 46 process, which would have required a vote before July 1 of this year.

“They didn’t want to rush into anything,” Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton said. “They took a full year to figure out how we’re going to pursue all these options before diving into the study committee work.”

The additional time also allowed Jamaica residents to figure out whether they wanted to leave the five-town Leland & Gray union in order to pursue school-choice options. The town initially voted to leave the union, then reversed that decision in September.

As a result, Windham Central’s Act 46 studies break down this way: Representatives from the Leland & Gray towns — Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham — are examining a pre-K-12 merger that would bring their schools under one board’s governance.

As things stand, those towns have four elementary schools with independent governance. Middle and high school students attend the regional Leland & Gray school, which also has its own board.

‘Side-by-side’ proposal

Separately, representatives from Dover, Marlboro, and Wardsboro are studying a merger into a unified district that would extend from pre-K through either sixth or eighth grade, with school choice thereafter.

Dover and Wardsboro currently have pre-K-6 elementary schools, while Marlboro teaches students through eighth grade at its school.

Under that “side-by-side” merger proposal being pursued by the two committees, there still would be an overarching supervisory union with its own board, Anton said. But he pointed out that the plan would result in just three boards, representing a significant downsizing in governance.

One additional Windham Central district — Stratton — isn’t involved in the side-by-side studies. Anton said Stratton, which doesn’t operate a school and has K-12 choice, has been talking to potential merger partners outside the current union’s boundaries.

Those involved in Windham Central’s Act 46 efforts say their studies don’t include any school closures. Rather, the idea is that larger, unified districts could share resources and expenses more easily, allowing administrators to direct spending and staffing where they’re needed as demographics change.

“This has nothing to do with school closure,” Anton said. “It has to do with [consolidating] school board operations over a larger group of students, and basically creating an entity that is more flexible.”

The Act 46 committees have been weighing a variety of information including test scores and enrollment trends; per-pupil spending; and the condition and value of school properties. Each school’s principal also has made a presentation to the applicable study committee.

Neither merger proposal has been finalized, but both study committees are trying to complete their work by year’s end.

“What we’re trying to do is look at, are there opportunities for increased student performance ... and could there be cost savings,” Werner said.

“It’s not a school taking over another school,” Werner added. “It’s the schools coming together.”

Seeking public input

The plan is to have voters consider the mergers on Town Meeting Day in March. Even if voters give their OK, however, the new districts won’t become operational until July 1, 2019 — giving officials extra time to implement a complicated consolidation.

“I think having that longer runway is actually a smart plan,” Anton said.

Study committee members haven’t been working on their own. Anton said state Agency of Education officials have been weighing in on portions of the merger plans, and John Everitt — a consultant contracted through the Vermont School Boards Association — has been advising the committees.

Officials also are looking for advice and input from the public before the merger proposals are finalized. Committee members have arranged for their meetings to be videotaped; they have hired public relations help; and they have established two websites where videos, meeting minutes, meeting notices, reports, and other documents are posted.

Those sites are wcsu-lgtowns.blogspot.com and wcsu-committee.blogspot.com.

“This is a fundamental shift in how our education business will be run,” Anton said. “The last thing I want is for anybody to be surprised, or feel like they weren’t part of the process.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #383 (Wednesday, November 16, 2016). This story appeared on page C4.

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