Facing Act 46, Marlboro expands its school board

Voters decide that expanding board from three to five members is necessary to handle education law’s complexities

MARLBORO — This town's school directors will have a little more company as they march into the uncharted territories of Act 46.

After some debate, Marlboro voters on Jan. 4 agreed to expand the town's school board from three members to five. Soon after that vote, Lauren Poster and Dan MacArthur were named to fill the two new seats until Town Meeting, when elections will be held for full one-year terms.

Marlboro officials admitted that board expansion is an unusual step for a small school facing consolidation under Vermont's new education-governance law. But they told voters that they need help in dealing with the complexities of that statute-not to mention handling the everyday business of running a school.

“We just thought this was an important time to have more representation from the community,” said Jen Carr, Marlboro's board chairwoman.

Act 46 is an attempt to reduce school costs and streamline governance in an era of rising taxes and declining enrollments. The 2015 law pushes for larger districts via mergers due to take effect by 2019, at the latest.

It's a difficult, potentially controversial process for any school district. But that's especially true for a school like Marlboro: It is the only K-8 district in Windham Central Supervisory Union, meaning officials may have to look outside the union's boundaries for potential merger partners if they want to retain their current school setup.

“We don't really have natural partners,” Carr said. “We don't look like any other schools in our supervisory union in order to merge easily, so we have a harder decision to make.”

There's no shortage of Act 46 studies and discussions happening in Windham Central.

The supervisory union has been approved for a $5,000 grant to fund a consultant who will assist the entire union with Act 46 deliberations, Superintendent Steven John said. Independently of that, school officials in Jamaica and Marlboro are taking their own in-depth looks at merger options.

It all adds up to a lot more work for Marlboro's three-member board. Carr noted that the town's school board has been holding its regular meetings; attending Marlboro's Act 46 committee meetings; attending more-frequent Windham Central meetings; and traveling to other towns to talk about mergers.

“With five people, we can actually delegate that out,” Carr said. “There are different roles that people (can) take, and it helps us to divide them up.”

So Marlboro's school board summoned voters to a special meeting Jan. 4, seeking permission to add two extra members and ease their workload. But there were some questions among a small crowd of about 20 people who braved frigid temperatures for the evening vote.

Some recognized the irony of expanding a school board in reaction to a law that calls for downsizing school governance. “A school this small is expanding, rather than the contraction that Act 46 is aimed at?” asked Jean Boardman, herself a former Marlboro school director.

Later, Boardman said she didn't oppose the change but wanted to raise the issue for debate. That seemed to be a common sentiment: No one spoke explicitly against expansion, but voters questioned the timing of the decision; the long-term need for two extra board members; and the ability to keep those seats filled.

“You beat the bushes (for candidates), and it's getting tougher and tougher and tougher,” one voter said. “And I think that's got to be clearly understood if we're going to try and add two more people. It's hard enough to find three.”

Given the uncertainties of Act 46, school officials were careful to not make any long-term promises. School Board Vice Chairman Doug Korb acknowledged that, “after a proposal goes through on Act 46, we may have to restructure our entire school governance anyway.”

And John told the crowd that, in his experience as a superintendent, “it isn't clear whether three (board members) are more effective than five ... it depends on the commitment of the people involved.”

But officials returned often to the idea that more board members will ease the workload and bring additional “diversity” to the Act 46 debate. And John pointed out that the appointments to the new seats would last only until March 1 elections, meaning “you can throw them out pretty quickly if they're not serving you well.”

After about 40 minutes of debate, voters unanimously approved the board expansion on a voice vote. Afterward, Korb said he thought the change will be “a benefit to the townspeople-they're going to have more boots on the ground for Act 46 as well as for our regular business.”

In addition to the two new seats, two other Marlboro school board spots will be up for grabs at Town Meeting. Candidate petitions are due Jan. 25.

“Spread the word,” John urged the crowd. “Let's make sure we have people running for these positions.”

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