As Town Meeting Day draws near, Marlboro School Board members find themselves in an awkward situation.
On one hand, they’re committed to a March 7 vote on a proposed Act 46 merger with Dover and Wardsboro school districts.
But on the other hand, there’s growing sentiment that Marlboro voters may reject the plan because it will close the town’s middle school. And school officials say they haven’t had enough time, resources, or regulatory clarity to study alternative merger options for a mountain town that is isolated from its neighbors.
So three Marlboro board members traveled to Montpelier Jan. 25 to make the case that they need more time to make difficult Act 46 decisions. In testimony before the House and Senate Education Committees, they argued that Marlboro isn’t alone in this dilemma.
“We also speak for all Vermont towns which are not finding satisfactory solutions under Act 46,” said Lauren Poster, a Marlboro School Board member.
Act 46, the 2015 law that presses for school district consolidation statewide, laid out several ways in which those mergers can happen by 2019. But the biggest incentives were attached to two merger structures with voter-approval deadlines of July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017.
A complicated issue
Marlboro is a member of the Windham Central Supervisory Union, where a dozen school boards oversee varying degrees of school choice.
Given that complexity, officials decided against pursuing the quickest type of Act 46 merger, which would have required consolidating all of the supervisory union’s districts.
Instead, two Windham Central Act 46 study committees have crafted a “side-by-side” plan with two merged districts that would operate under the same supervisory union.
Under that plan, the five Leland & Gray union districts — Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham — would combine into one new district governed by one board. Separately, districts in Dover, Marlboro, and Wardsboro’s districts would merge.
The state Board of Education has signed off on that merger plan, and all the towns are scheduled to vote March 7.
For Marlboro officials, however, the decision to move ahead with that merger proposal was difficult. That’s mainly because Dover and Wardsboro are pre-K through grade six districts, and Marlboro teaches students through eighth grade.
State officials say merging districts must adopt the same structure of operating schools and school choice.
And Marlboro’s study committee members “agreed early on that we would not try to force these other towns to change their structure, so if we merge with Dover and Wardsboro, Marlboro will be losing its grades seven and eight,” Poster said.
That is “not popular among the residents of the town,” Poster said, citing steady enrollment and “creative learning opportunities” that have been developed at the middle school.
No fan of merger
Poster made clear that she’s no fan of the current merger proposal either, telling lawmakers that “from my personal perspective, Marlboro students will be better-served by preserving grades seven and eight.”
But the three Marlboro officials — Poster, Doug Korb and Dan MacArthur — told legislators that their hands have been tied throughout the Act 46 process.
That’s despite the fact that the town has been discussing the matter since 2015; has expanded its school board to spread out the workload; and has formed several Act 46-related committees.
Part of the problem is the town’s relative isolation in terms of geography and educational structure.
There are no other K-8 schools in the supervisory union. And officials say they haven’t been able to find any willing merger partners outside of the union, a search that’s been hampered by dirt roads and the mountainous, winding Route 9.
“That’s not a dangerous road — it’s a treacherous road, especially in the winter,” acknowledged Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, and a member of the House Education Committee.
Marlboro board members also argue that their Act 46 deliberations have been hampered by inadequate regulations and tight deadlines.
For example, Act 46 allows for exploration of “alternative” merger structures, but Marlboro officials said the state’s guidelines for that process remain in draft form. “There’s a lot of contradiction in there,” Poster said.
Marlboro is listed as “advisable” in the upcoming three-town merger vote, meaning Dover and Wardsboro could still merge even if Marlboro votes against it. But that would leave Marlboro on its own, with less than a year to come up with a still-uncertain alternative Act 46 plan.
Given that uncertainty, “there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety in town right now — people feeling like, if we don’t merge, we’re going to be forced [by the state] to do something we don’t want to do,” Poster said.
There’s also the fact that the Dover-Marlboro-Wardsboro merger is contingent on the success of the five-town Leland & Gray merger that is also scheduled for a March 7 vote. Both must pass if there is to be a state-approved “side-by-side” merger in Windham Central.
It’s unclear what will happen — and what kind of alternative merger scenario the state might entertain — if either vote fails on March 7.
“As conscientious representatives to our community, we cannot give appropriate guidance to our constituents without this information,” Poster said.
The solution, Poster and her colleagues contend, is more clarity and more time. They spent their day in Montpelier lobbying for bills including H.15 and S.15, both of which would “extend the time frames for school district consolidation and associated dates by one year.”
The bills also seek to “facilitate the approval of alternative governance structures” for school districts, meaning Marlboro and similar towns would have more guidance on how the state will evaluate unconventional merger proposals.
The Marlboro board members’ pleas were met with some sympathy, but legislative committee members made no promises and seemed wary of making sweeping changes.
Most of the concern was focused on extending Act 46 deadlines. Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden and chair of the Senate Education Committee, wondered whether the Legislature might inadvertently influence some Town Meeting Day merger votes by signaling support for Act 46 deadline extensions.
“We feel like we’re trying to balance to what extent we’d be monkeying with people’s carefully created plans that are in accordance with Act 46 in order to maybe accommodate a situation such as the one you’re in,” Baruth told Marlboro officials.
In fact, there is pushback against a blanket deadline extension even from within Windham Central Supervisory Union.
Immediately after Marlboro’s testimony in the House Education Committee, two Windham Central officials — Leland & Gray board Chairman Joe Winrich and supervisory union board Chairman Rich Werner — testified that they favor a “qualified” extension process so that the state doesn’t reward school districts that haven’t attempted to fulfill their Act 46 study obligations.
“There are some schools that didn’t do anything,” Werner said. “And I think to treat them the same as those of us that have really worked hard ... I think it’s a slap in the face to us.”
After listening to Marlboro’s testimony in the House Education Committee, Miller said she’s optimistic that the town will find an Act 46 solution. She urged district officials to contact the state Board of Education to inquire about special consideration due to geographic isolation.
But Miller also said school officials must remember that there is a clear need for educational governance changes in Vermont.
“What we’re trying to do is right-size our schools,” she said. “And a lot of communities are doing that.”