By Curt Peterson
In June the Agency of Education made “recommendations” for over 90 local school districts that wish to avoid consolidation with merged districts under ACT 46. AoE recommended 18 districts for “forced merger.”
The final decision will be made by the state Board of Education by Nov. 30.
Two towns recommended for forced merger were Barnard, whose voters rejected merging with the Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District (WCMUUSD) and Orwell, which voted against joining the Slate Valley consolidated district three times. School Board members from both towns appeared before the state Board of Education (BoE) at a hearing in Montpelier on Aug.15.
Barnard’s biggest fear is what they call the “inevitable closing of our school” as soon the four-year school-closing moratorium expires. Both the School Board and the Select Board feel lack of a local school will make Barnard less attractive to young families looking for a place to settle.
“The recommended merger would create conditions that will lead to closure of our school,” Pamela Fraser told the BoE. In their alternative governance proposal to the agency, Fraser said, they demonstrated Barnard has met or exceeded all the goals of ACT 46 without joining a consolidated district.
Fraser is a member of the WCMUUSD, representing Barnard’s 7-12 grades who already attend Woodstock schools. Fraser and Carin Park represented Barnard at the BoE hearings Aug. 15.
Orwell has a similar relationship with Slate Valley – 43 students in grades 9-12 already attend Schools in the consolidated district.
Orwell’s School Board is more passionate about who is in control.
“A lot of it’s just local control and running the school the way we want to run our school, not the way all the other towns want to run the school…” Peter Stone, Orwell School Board member told the BoE.
The two consolidated districts have similarities. WCMUUSD includes six towns with total populations of 7,462 (2016), and Barnard’s 918 residents would represent 11 percent of the total (8,380) as part of the it.
Orwell’s 1,239 residents would be 15 percent of the total population of 9,407 in Slate Valley towns.
Governance is different in the two consolidated districts.
In Slate Valley, “It would take 75 [percent] or more of the Board of Directors and a positive vote of the municipality by Australian Ballot in which the school is located in order to approve closure of a school,” according to its Agreements.
A simple majority of the WCMUUSD board could vote to close a school after four years, subject to final approval by voters in all participating towns. Woodstock represents 35 percent of the population in the consolidated district.
The WCMUUSD board is apportioned by population. Each of the smaller towns has two votes, and Woodstock has six, for a total of 18.
Assuming Woodstock representatives vote as a bloc, one or two of the smaller towns joining them could swing any vote – even regarding closing a school.
At their last meeting, Fraser obtained a promise the WCMUUSD board will discuss possible renegotiation of the agreements, particularly representation and school closure provisions, at a Dec.19 meeting.
Slate Valley’s Board gives each town two votes regardless of population – a la the U. S. Senate, in which each state has two seats – equal representation.
“I can only speak for us,” Slate Valley superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell wrote to the Mountain Times in an email, “but our model of equal representation by town is currently working well. The Slate Valley Board has consistently been advocating for all students. They have yet to have a roll call vote. The Slate Valley Board already includes (three) members from the town of Orwell.”
Olsen-Farrell also said the Slate Valley board has had no discussions about reconfiguring grades or transporting students among schools in the consolidated district.
BoE chair Kristin Huling said a set of “default agreements” are in the development stage. If WCMUUSD adopts them, it may provide some of the changes Barnard seeks. Fraser and Park have seen an early draft.
Fraser said if the default agreements, as outlined in the draft, had been offered, Barnard probably would not have rejected the WCMUUSD merger in March 2017.