By Curt Peterson
BARNARD—About 35 people heard the evening of Aug. 29 that their town has three options for keeping their school open if the state Board of Education decides, as expected, to recommend forced merger of their district with the Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District (WCMUUSD).
The school district is not required by the Act 46 school consolidation law to accept Barnard into the consolidated district, and who has the authority to decide – the voters in each member town or the school district board itself – is up in the air.
Barnard School Board member Pamela Fraser framed the options: They can accept the Board of Education’s decision and try to renegotiate the original merger terms, they can appeal the Board of Education’s decision through statutory process, or they could close Barnard Academy, making Barnard a “choice town,” and reopen the school as an independent private institution.
The Board of Education merger decision is due on Nov. 30.
Fear of school closure led in large part to voter rejection of the school district merger, 1.5 to 1 at their 2017 Town Meeting. Other major objections are voting inequities on the consolidated board —Woodstock has six votes, and each of five smaller towns have two, and resentment that Barnard will be forced to assume a portion of debts of other towns when their own school is debt-free.
The Agency of Education rejected Barnard’s alternative governance proposal in June and recommended forced merger with WCMUUSD. The Barnard board feels data in their proposal was manipulated and misrepresented in the Agency of Education report to support its decision.
The panel included retired attorney David Kelley, consultant Tom Martin, who claims he saved the North Bennington School from closure through privatization, and attorney Mark Oettinger, retained to advise Barnard regarding a possible forced merger decision by the Board of Education.
An Agency of Education draft set of “default” articles, Fraser said, would resolve most of Barnard’s objections. Because WCMUUSD has existing articles of agreement, the new terms won’t be available to Barnard.
Martin and Kelley strongly advocated for privatization.
Martin took credit for privatizing the North Bennington School District in the 90s. The town felt its school would be closed as a result of Act 60, and hired him to save it, he said.
“I believe passionately in public education, but that was the best thing the town ever did,” Martin said.
Kelley said he is sure Barnard Academy would be closed if they merged into the consolidated district. He talked to local residents who told him “they love and admire the school.”
“To take the school out of the heart of this place would be criminal,” Kelley said.
The drumbeat for “going independent” was obvious, but not all present were swept up in the tide.
“The atmosphere in this room makes it difficult and uncomfortable to express another opinion,” Heather Little said.
Barnard School Board member Bryce Sammel said, “I’m not opposed to merging (with the WCMUUSD), just to the articles and to the way the board does stuff.”
He cited a situation in Reading where they were promised, he said, there would be no staff changes post-merger. Later, the consolidated board voted to reduce the Reading staff by one teacher for budgetary reasons. Several residents and teachers voiced their objection at last Monday’s WCMUUSD board meeting.
Sammel and Fraser represent Barnard on the WCMUUSD board regarding middle and high school issues.
One resident, speaking as a Barnard Academy and Woodstock High School graduate, questioned Martin about his description of his alleged success. He said the North Bennington School, with which he is familiar, has been declining since privatization.
Martin did not address the remark.
Attorney Oettinger answered questions throughout the evening without advocating for a particular action. Asked for his opinion, he said he would not vote in favor of authorizing the School Board to privatize Barnard Academy.
“My advice is to spend your energy trying to renegotiate the articles of agreement with the new district,” he said. “The independence option is a dangerous choice at this point in time. This is personal, and not legal, advice.”
The WCMUUSD board has agreed to discuss possible reconsideration of its articles of agreement at their Dec. 17 meeting, after the Board of Education announcement in November.
Photo by Curt Peterson
Board members discuss what they can do to keep Barnard Academy open.