By Curt Peterson
BARNARD—The Barnard School Board expects the Vermont Board of Education (BoE) to accept recommendation by the Agency of Education (AoE) to force the school to join the Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District.
A decision is due Nov. 30.
Pamela Fraser asked district board members on July 31 to consider renegotiating the Articles of Agreement, to which the five participating towns agreed when forming the new district.
“We are not calling for a vote to revise the articles this week, but for a vote to develop revised ones,” Fraser wrote
in an email to board leadership. “If we are able to do that, those would be voted on, first by the merged board (to put on ballots), and then by the electorates of each (participatin) town.”
Fraser cited specific changes Barnard would like the board to reconsider: Deeding their school to the district which, they fear, might be closed and returned laden with additional debt, reconfiguring and moving grades within the district, protection against school closure, and the make-up of board representation, which Barnard feels unfavorable to smaller towns within the district.
She cited “suggested default Articles of Agreement” the AoE was expected to post by early this week, which were presented by AoE Budget and Management Analyst Donna Russo-Savage at a July 18 meeting. The default Agreements, Russo-Savage said, will address issues brought up by many smaller towns, specifically, protection against school closures and reconfiguration of grades, equal representation on district boards regardless of the size of participating towns, and which Article amendments can be changed by boards, and which must go to the voters.
Board members Matt Stover and Justin Shipman agreed that the discussion should be pursued, but it is too early to be talking about it now, before Barnard’s status is determined.
The district board voted to table Fraser’s request, pending legal advice regarding which proposed agreement changes could be granted by the Board, and which would have to left up to member towns’ voters.
The board superintendent Mary Beth Banios set Dec. 17 as the date for a special meeting to discuss whether or how the Articles of Agreement might be amended.
Although Barnard middle and high school students currently attend Woodstock schools, the town feels loss of their pre-kindergarten through sixth grade local school will make the town unattractive to young families.
Barnard had presented their case for remaining independent to the AoE, which ultimately recommended to the BoE that Barnard be merged with the district.
Fraser told the Mountain Times that attorney Mark Oettinger, engaged by the Barnard Select Board for advice, believes Barnard would have a good chance of keeping ownership of the school, because the forced merger makes it a “taking,” requiring “due process.”
In another proposal, Barnard would close their own school, ask voters to approve making Barnard a “choice” town – students could choose whatever school they want to attend – then re-opening Barnard Academy as a private institution. The plan assumes most or all Barnard families would choose to send their children to the new private school.
According to Fraser, Oettinger believes it is too late in the process for Barnard to “take its school private.”
“Another attorney told us Oettinger is incorrect, that we can still make it happen,” Fraser said. “Our heads are spinning with all the information we are getting.”
The Select Board and School Board had planned to hold an Aug. 7 public information meeting to explain the current situation and the privatization idea, but, Fraser said, with the proposal in question the meeting might be a waste of time.
Barnard School Board members will have an opportunity on Aug. 15 to convince the BoE to accept Barnard’s proposal to remain independent, during a public hearing in Montpelier.