MARLBORO—After a long search and some legislative lobbying, Marlboro school officials think they’ve found their district’s niche in Vermont’s changing educational landscape.
The question is whether state officials will agree.
Marlboro School Board members have approved an Act 46 merger plan that would link their district with two other, newly formed districts while also allowing Marlboro to retain its middle school and its current form of governance.
The so-called “2x2x1” merger model is a new option created this year by state lawmakers. Marlboro officials say it’s the right fit for a mountainous district that is isolated from other merger partners in several ways.
“We’re really hoping we can put this in front of [the state Board of Education] and get a positive response,” said Douglas Korb, Marlboro School Board chairman.
Act 46, the state’s 2015 education governance law, pushes for larger, consolidated school districts statewide in an effort to decrease costs and equalize educational opportunity.
But some school officials complained that the statute didn’t allow enough time or flexibility to accommodate all districts. In January, three Marlboro officials took those concerns directly to lawmakers by testifying before the House and Senate education committees.
The Legislature responded to such protests by passing Act 49, which created new school-merger structures and extended deadlines.
“We saw the changes come out of the Legislature and said, ‘That’s for us,’” Korb said.
Long before this year’s legislative changes, Marlboro residents took a deep dive into Act 46 possibilities. The school board in early 2016 added two members to help with the additional merger-study workload, and officials examined a variety of options both within and outside Windham Central Supervisory Union while also surveying town residents.
The one Act 46 proposal that made it to a vote in Marlboro — a merger with Dover and Wardsboro — failed in March. There were 264 Marlboro residents against that plan, and only 66 voted in favor of it.
That vote was a “strong statement,” Marlboro officials say, that the town doesn’t want to lose its middle school. The merger with Dover and Wardsboro, both K-6 districts, would have resulted in the elimination of seventh and eighth grades from Marlboro’s current K-8 school, where enrollment numbers have been steady.
The school board’s new plan (available at marlboroschool.net/school-board) may be much more palatable for Marlboro voters.
It is made possible by the recent creation of two consolidated school districts within Windham Central Supervisory Union.
The “River Valleys Unified School District” consists of Dover and Wardsboro. And the “West River Modified Union Education District” includes the towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and — for grades 7-12 only — Windham.
Under the 2x2x1 plan, Marlboro would be linked with both of those merged districts but would continue to govern itself. That structure would “meet the goals of Act 46, build on historic strengths of the Windham Central Supervisory Union and allow all involved districts to maintain historic patterns of operating schools and tuitioning students,” Marlboro officials wrote in their merger proposal.
The school board argues that Marlboro’s geographic and structural isolation makes such a plan the best Act 46 solution.
In terms of educational structure, there are no other K-8 districts in Windham Central. And geographically, officials note that Marlboro students are isolated both from Brattleboro — the board calls Route 9 “one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the state” — and from several Windham Southwest districts to the south.
Marlboro officials say the new merger proposal will allow the district to build on “a long history of interdependence and collaboration” in Windham Central, while also granting the freedom to explore new middle school programs in cooperation with Brattleboro-based Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
Marlboro’s plan also lists numerous ways in which the merger could meet the goals of Act 46 by boosting student opportunity and achievement; increasing operational efficiency; and promoting transparency and accountability.
It will be up to the state Board of Education to decide whether Marlboro delivers on its promises.
Marlboro officials are expecting the board to consider their proposal next month. If the board signs off, a town vote is planned prior to Nov. 30.
Coordinating that schedule, Korb said, has been “really tricky.” That’s in part because of statutory deadlines, but it’s also due to the fact that Marlboro’s proposed merger partners are in their infancy.
The board of the new West River district has signed off on Marlboro’s proposal and reaffirmed its support at an Aug. 21 meeting, said Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton. But the River Valleys district doesn’t formally organize until Sept. 22, so no such endorsement has been possible.
Still, that “doesn’t appear to hold anything back,” Anton said. The plan is to get Marlboro’s proposal before the state board, he said, and then go from there.
The 2x2x1 merger model is untested because it’s so new. A state Agency of Education spokeswoman said no such mergers have been approved yet, though the state board will begin considering 2x2x1 proposals at its Aug. 30 meeting.