On March 22, 2017

Two towns reject school merger

By Stephen Seitz

BARNARD—Act 46 is getting off to a creaky start, at least for some.
The law, which went into effect in 2015, has the goal of merging Vermont’s school districts in the hope of providing better education, as well as get a better handle on costs.
The towns of Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Reading, Pomfret, and Woodstock would have become the Windsor Central Unified District. But Pomfret and Barnard said no. Since all towns were “advisable,” with a minimum of four towns needing to approve the merger, Bridgewater, Killington, Pomfret, and Woodstock will create a Modified District instead.
“There was a groundswell amongst the people of Barnard who did not appreciate the perceived threat of closing the local school,” said Barnard School Board member Andy Cole. “We have to figure out what the next step is. Any town that voted no is on its own.”
According to media reports, the debate proved to be quite contentious on Town Meeting Day. By the end of it, school board chairman Chip Davis resigned his seat, even though he had two more years to go. Board member Kim White declined to run for another one-year term. The board now comprises Cole, Bryce Sammel, and Carin Park.
The final vote came to 103 in favor of a merger, and 155 against.
Cole said there were a multitude of choices as to where to go next.
“To be fair to the state, we’ll consider all of them,” he said. “As to the other towns, they’re planning for their unified school district. They planned on money from Barnard and Reading, and now they won’t have that money to use.”
Cole said the state initially left the towns a single choice on mergers.
“If you voted as a school board to start a study committee, you only had one option,” he said. “The state didn’t allow us to talk with other towns. But now we’re going to have those conversations.”
According to the state Agency of Education’s proposal, Plymouth is also in the mix.
“The Study Committee also identifies the Plymouth School District as an ‘advisable’ district to the proposal,” according to the document. The Study Committee’s report indicates that more than 80 percent of Plymouth’s students, K-12, are currently enrolled in public schools operated within the WCSU.
Plymouth’s Town Meeting Day vote has been rescheduled to April 18 after the March 7 local election was found to be accidentally in violation of election law at around 12-noon. Residents will vote on whether to join the Windsor Central Supervisory District.
Pittsfield was invited to be part of the mix, as well. “The Pittsfield School District became a member of the WCSU in 2015,” according to the agency. But “The district does not operate any schools and has determined that it wishes to remain a non-operating district. As a result, the study committee does not include the Pittsfield School District in its proposal as a necessary or advisable district.”
There is also another wrinkle: the remaining towns may not be able to form their own district. Again, according to the Agency of Education proposal:
“If the voters in the six named town elementary school districts in the WCSU vote in favor of the proposal, then the New Unified District will begin full operation as a unified union schools district on July 1, 2018,” according to the proposal. “If the voters in one of the six named town elementary school districts in the WCSU does not vote in favor of the proposal, but the voters in the other four elementary school districts approve the proposal, then the MUUSD (modified unified union school district) will be formed and will begin full operation on July 1, 2018. No union school district will be formed in any other circumstance.”
Attempts to reach Reading School Board Chair Justin Sluka were unsuccessful.
To read the agency’s full proposal, go to https://education.vermont.gov/documents/state-board-agenda-item-022117-g and click on Agenda Item G.

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