WSESU towns try different approach after merger failure

Subcommittee pushes efforts to get towns behind alternative governance structure before December deadline

BRATTLEBORO — Following the resounding defeat by four member towns in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union of a new unified school district, a new effort is underway to create another proposal by Dec. 26.

This time around, the goal is to improve the current structure of the WSESU to conform to the goals of Act 46, the state's education reform law, which requires districts to reconcile educational cost, quality, and transparency.

The effort emerged from the work of an Alternative Governance Structure Sub-Committee of the Dummerston School Board, which, according to member Richard Virkstis, was charged with exploring alternatives to the “accelerated merger” option of Act 46.

The merger, which would have created a single pre-kindergarten-through-grade-12 school district with one budget and one school board, was crushed at the polls on Nov. 7.

Despite tax incentives designed to offset the costs associated with the merger, all four towns rejected the proposal. In Putney, 171 voted in favor, and 370 opposed; Dummerston, 91–473; Brattleboro, 375–850; and Guilford, 161–262.

Voters in every one of the four towns would have had to approve the merger for the new district to supersede the WSESU.

WSESU Superintendent Lyle Holliday attributed the defeat to a variety of issues, including voter frustration over Act 46 as a “top-down directive” from the state. “And towns really want to be able to hold on to their school boards and make decisions locally,” she said.

“It's feeling very different even though all the same questions keep coming up,” said David Schoales, a member of the Brattleboro Town School Board who served as an alternate on the Act 46 Study Committee and who has been participating in the AGS group since August.

According to Virkstis - who characterized the efforts of the Act 46 Study Committee as a “headlong drive to the preferred model” - the subcommittee has invited other towns to the table to adapt the current structure by the state's Dec. 31 deadline.

School board members and citizens from Brattleboro, Putney, Dummerston, and Guilford have participated in the process. Others also have attended from Vernon, which broke ranks in the original merger negotiations with the other WSESU towns over the issue of school choice.

The group is exploring ways to contain costs and achieve economies of scale while retaining town autonomy and existing school board structures, both Schoales and Virkstis said. Both pointed out the ongoing discussions to craft a policy that would expand school choice within the district towns and to engage in collaborative hiring processes for shared personnel.

Whether it is attached to such an effort, each existing town school board and regional school district must submit a proposal by the December deadline, explained WSESU Superintendent Lyle Holliday.

The state Agency of Education and the secretary of education will review these proposals, and by June 1 will accept or modify the plans from districts throughout the state.

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