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Local control versus cost control

Windham Central struggles with maintaining its small schools

TOWNSHEND—At least in theory, the Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) — composed of elementary school boards in Townshend, Brookline, Newfane, Windham, and Jamaica, and Leland & Gray Union High School — could smoothly implement Act 153, the latest legislation that directs disparate union school boards to merge into a single-board K-12 school district.

But given the ideological competition between local control and cost control, the process all but guarantees a bumpy road, even as school committee members and administrators take a warily optimistic view of the process.

The WCSU district towns are now working with the year-old Act 153, the law guiding the formation of Regional Education Districts (REDS), and now being wrangled statewide by school boards, superintendents, teachers, and the public.

The new law may directly affect the way education administration is conducted in the WCSU — but not until 2017.

The law directed school unions and districts to consider forming study committees by Dec. 1, 2010. These committees must determine the best and most efficient system of transforming K-12 governance.

All plans must eventually be submitted to the community for a vote, either at town meeting or special election.

Incentives to schools

The state Department of Education is offering incentive grants of up to $20,000 to fully formed study groups. These groups must address, in phases, nearly 20 conditions relating to forming these districts, and must provide unanimous support for how to resolve all issues.

Other incentives include:

• Providing two advisers to each committee, one to plan and organize the meetings, and the other to provide technical help;

• Lowering the tax rate for the first four years of a new K-12 district;

• Capping the tax rate up or down at 5 percent a year; and

• Barring any party other than the voters from closing a school in the first four years after the study committee process begins.

The WCSU can now say, since Windham Elementary board meeting on June 5, that all of its elementary schools have named a specified number of representatives, based on the same representation each school has on the WCSU Board, to the projected study committees.

There are four elementary schools, since Brookline and Newfane merged last year into NewBrook Elementary, but the two towns maintain separate boards.

Further, Wardsboro, Dover, and Marlboro are part of the union, but retain school choice for high-school attendance and do not have to be considered for placement on the study committee.

In 2011, Wardsboro sent 48 students to Leland & Gray, while Dover sent 18 and Marlboro 3.

While he’s careful to say he is happy to describe some of the ways in which consolidation will benefit students, WCSU Superintendent Steven John emphasizes that he does not speak as an advocate.

At a recent meeting of the Brookline and Newfane School Boards, John said, “This [the study committee] is going to be very important.” He advised the boards to send at least two representatives to meetings, even if only one is officially a member.

“This is a way of spreading the knowledge so that when voting comes, there is more than one representative,” he said. “These are some of the questions: will [REDS] mean more teachers and better programs?”

He noted that the superintendent’s job is not sustainable in the current system, one that requires the superintendent to keep abreast of 10 school boards, plus the regional union board.

He pointed out that after meeting all the deadlines set by the state Board of Education, including the final date of 2017 for creating a consolidated school district, the community could say “forget it.”

Frank Rucker, WCSU’s chief financial officer, emphasized the opportunities for efficiency a regional education district provides.

Transportation, food service, facility management, and technology were some of the services that would benefit from a central management system, he said.

Similar opportunities for efficiency, he said, also exist in direct instruction, such as curriculum assessment and professional development.

“I would point to 41 years of [education] experience that exists in the West River Valley as an example of how this [a RED] could be an effective model,” Rucker said.

While so-called economies of scale apply to all the union’s schools, the elementary schools in the WCSU fall into the small-school division and thus qualify for the small schools grant, a device that came into being in the late 1990s, when the state education fund was established.

Since then, these grants have blossomed statewide into a $7 million program that assists 104 schools with low enrollment and small class size.

A recent report by the Education Department indicates that more than $5 million could be saved by changing the rules and restricting the grants to schools that are small for geographic reasons and not just because of low enrollment.

The report says that 23 schools now receiving small-school grants fall into the geographic necessity category. The study recommended ending the grants to the other schools over time.

The smallest school

Windham Elementary School embodies and represents many of the conflicts these proposed new districts generate.

The school sits about 12 miles from the center of Townshend on Windham Hill Road, off Route 30. It is a geographically isolated school, and the one with the lowest enrollment in the union, with between 15 and 20 students, depending on preschool numbers,

Its surroundings are enticingly beautiful, amid hill and dale, and closely fitted into the kind of landscape that draws people to Vermont. It has drawn some of the current students from far away, and some of the teachers as well.

The tiny school has a long heritage of community connections and links among the generations of students who have passed through.

Grace Brigham, a former teacher at Windham Elementary who now lives in Shrewsbury, was in the audience for “A Special Place,” a play and puppet show that drew more than 60 people for each of two performances. Brigham had taught the class’s teacher, Sally Newton, when she attended the school from 1964 to 1966.

“These kids,” Brigham said, speaking of Newton and her collaborators and former schoolmates, sisters Cate Kelley and Sarah Beagan, “were wonderful artists then and are sharing their gifts now.”

Kelley, a veteran puppet maker, and Beagan helped the students with the oversize and evocative masks and with the fanciful sets for the show, which chronicled episodes in the lives of wood ducks, red squirrels, raccoons, a gray fox who chases rabbits, a turtle (who successfully demonstrated its plodding nature by getting caught in a plastic bag), some bugs, and a trio of careless humans who get their comeuppance when a milk snake appears on the scene.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, also in the audience, has served as a legislator since 1998 and as Windham Elementary School Board chair since 2000, and she worked as a school bus driver for several years before that. She takes a dim view of the merger proposals.

At the June 5 Windham Elementary Board meeting, Partridge said of the study committee plans, “I really don’t understand it yet. So I guess we should join. We can always participate in the study and go from there.”

While she felt there wasn’t much to lose by participation, she didn’t feel it was really voluntary.

“It doesn’t seem that way to me,” she explained. “I don’t want the kids to pay the price. The conflict for me is possibly being penalized [for not joining].”

With a RED, the board would go away, which makes her worry “about proportional representation,” she said.

“The RED board would be making decisions for this school with just one board member from our school,” Partridge said. “I hope the study addresses these issues.”

“If we have questions, and we had answers, we wouldn’t need a study committee,” said John.

Indicating that she pretty much thought the goal of the consolidation plans was to close schools, Partridge nevertheless agreed that the study committee was the way to go.

‘No idea how I will feel later’

Emily Long, chair of the Leland & Gray Union High School Board and the WCSU Board, now serves as one of Newfane’s official representatives on the study committee.

“I am in favor of studying the issues,” she said. “I have no idea how I will feel later, or what the outcome will be, but we need to look at this.”

“Here’s what worries me,” Long said. “We keep losing students and, if we don’t address this issue, we’re going to force school closings.”

David Dezendorf, a study committee member from Townshend, is dead set against the consolidation proposals. Loss of local control is his particular worry.

“What I see is the state overreaching,” he said. “This is what happens every time the Legislature gets involved. Now we have to have certified art teachers, certified music teachers, certified guidance counselors.”

Dezendorf has been on the board for all but one of the last 11 years and believes that too much power has shifted from the schools into the supervisory unions.

“All these people are accountable to the superintendent, who is not an elected official,” he said, suggesting that the public should vote on supervisory union budgets.

“I grew up in central Louisiana, where the parishes are like the districts here, and the counties like the supervisory unions,” he reported. “I lived through forced busing and forced desegregation.”

He, too, is worried about smaller schools and what happens to the buildings if a school closes.

One idea, Dezendorf said, would be to separate students by grades, sending all seventh graders to one place, for example.

“These are the reasons I agreed to participate in the study,” he said, “so a lot of viewpoints will be represented.”

Wes Ameden, chair of the Jamaica School Board, said, “We’ve nothing to lose by investigating.”

Kim Friedman and Lee Ann Parker, respective chairs of the Newfane and Brookline School Boards, agree that the plan merits serious study.

“This is the direction the state wants us to go in, and we have to figure it out,” Parker said. “Sometimes, it can lead down a road you don’t know you’re on.”

“I’m excited by the plans,” Friedman said.

Somara Zwick, a member of the Brookline School Board, has mixed feelings.

“If it’s just about making life easier for the administration, then I’m not so enthusiastic. If it really saves money, then where does the money go? Do we get our French teacher back [at Leland & Gray]? Does it go back to classrooms? Who are we saving money for?”

Zwick, who used to live in Chicago, where she was in the accounting business, stated clearly what many residents of these 10 communities feel about the long education road ahead.

“I’m a skeptic,” she said. “But I have an open mind.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #105 (Wednesday, June 15, 2011).

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