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Wilmington, Whitingham school boards present consolidated education plan

WHITINGHAM—Whitingham and Wilmington voters have heard the details about two scenarios for consolidating the education provided to children in the two towns, as well as the support of educational leaders who say that joining forces will improve students’ opportunities and save money.

They also heard the details of a third scenario: doing nothing.

The Wilmington and Whitingham school boards, and the three school principals, last week presented scenarios for a consolidated pre-K through grade 12 school system at two public informational meetings in the respective towns.

The first option entails busing the elementary school children to Wilmington and middle and high school students to Whitingham. The other option uses Whitingham as the elementary school site, and Wilmington as middle and high school site.

Doing nothing, if the voters don’t support consolidation, said Wilmington school board director Philip Taylor, was option three.

At a meeting at the combined Elementary and Twin Valley Middle School in Whitingham on May 17, audience member Jon Gamache of Whitingham, said, “Show me that plan that will be a success for my children, and I’ll vote for it whatever it is. It’s not about Wilmington or Whitingham, but about our students.”

Gamache, a father of three, has a child in elementary, middle school and high school.

Two town-wide votes

The informational meetings presage town-wide votes scheduled for the end of June, said Taylor.

An affirmative vote would amend Wilmington and Whitingham’s joint agreement to allow for a consolidated pre-K-through-12 school system, with a contingency clause that consolidation would not take effect until the towns pass a bond vote, he said.

Along with the vote on consolidation, voters will be asked non-binding questions to assess which consolidation option they prefer, said Taylor.

“I am for consolidation, because it’s what I feel in my head and heart that it’s the best thing for our kids,” said Jack Rizzo, superintendent for the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union.

Rizzo felt confident that the towns would “land on their feet.” Good schools, he said, have high expectations, a loving climate, a strong teaching culture, and great leadership.

“We do this regardless,” he said.

Twin Valley High School Principal Frank Spencer said that the primary goal of consolidation is to provide students “with the best educational options that we can.”

Without consolidation, Spencer said that it will be more challenging and more difficult to move local education into the 21st century.

According to Spencer, schools in Vermont faced the double-whammy of decreasing enrollment and steadily rising costs. Many schools had had to cut programs, such as foreign languages, because they couldn’t keep their staff.

As things stand now, Wilmington and Whitingham, too, will eventually face the choice of either raising taxes to meet costs, or cutting staff, he said.

Consolidation, however, could help mediate costs while providing more educational opportunities for students from both towns, he said.

Deerfield Valley Elementary School Principal Rebecca Fillion said that Whitingham and Wilmington working separately does not deliver the best results.

Education plan

The education-related goals of consolidation include improving educational opportunities and reducing costs, said Spencer during his presentation.

Spencer, Fillion, and Whitingham Elementary/Twin Valley Middle School Principal Keith Lyman outlined the potential educational benefits of consolidation.

Some of the listed benefits included an increase in teacher collaboration and sharing of expertise.

Renovating the chosen elementary, middle or high school buildings would open the opportunity to upgrade technology accessibility. Administrators and teachers would have more flexibility to arrange students by classroom in a positive way.

Aligning elementary curriculums would better support middle school students, they said. Increased student population would increase diversity, and give students with similar interests the chance to work together, especially in the areas of drama, music, and sports.

The principals also listed as benefits reduced per-pupil spending and the attraction a stronger school system would be to families and staff to the Deerfield Valley.

Consolidation would, however, bring staffing cuts.

Spencer highlighted other pressing needs that consolidation would help solve.

He told the audience that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges will reprimand the Twin Valley High School because of the building’s poor condition.

“If we don’t move forward, they will put us on probation and we would lose our accreditation,” he said.

He added that the state wants to see less spending per pupil. So far, Twin Valley has stayed out of that “penalty box” but as costs inevitably rise, “then the state will be on our backs, too.”

According to Spencer, small schools face the wrong side of the economy of scale to keep spending down, compared to larger schools like Brattleboro Union High School.

Taylor said that the role of the school boards would be to maintain the long-term vision for the schools, while collaborating with school professionals.

“We can’t settle for being good,” Taylor said.

The Deerfield Valley is “surrounded by schools with school choice and lower tuition rates,” Taylor said, adding that there’s a lot of unfair aspects of funding to small schools in Vermont.

Taylor said that the community needs to ask, “What will define our greatness?”

Our children are entering a competitive global job market, he warned the audience. According to a recent article he had read, India had more honor students than Vermont has students.

“[We need to] come together and find the answers to these questions,” Taylor said.

Savings

In previous meetings, board members from both towns presented the financial ramifications of consolidation. Both consolidation options are eligible for 50 percent in state aid.

According to figures released by the school boards on May 17, the towns could expect to see a total savings of $541,264 by consolidating. Wilmington would realize a $409,039 portion of the savings, and Whitingham $132,225.

According to board members, the Whitingham School and Twin Valley High School in Wilmington will require extensive renovations, regardless of which consolidation option the towns act on.

Wilmington and Whitingham are not a unified school district. This has slowed momentum with consolidation because instead of school districts making financial or educational decisions, the two towns need to agree and vote separately.

In place of the unified district, board members have developed a joint agreement detailing finances, governance, and expectations for each town.

According to Taylor, the upcoming town-wide votes will take place in two steps: first if both towns want to consolidate and second what structure voters will support.

The reason for the two steps, said Taylor, is that the schools don’t want to tie a bond vote to a specific consolidation option, only to have voters turn down that option.

That’s a scenario the administrators don’t want to see.

“If we don’t consolidate, we will die a slow and painful death,” said Spencer.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #102 (Wednesday, May 25, 2011).

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