SEARSBURG — Two local school districts are looking at consolidation options besides the most obvious.
Instead of focusing on a merger between all districts within their supervisory unions or some semblance of that, Searsburg and Stratton are entertaining other ideas to comply with the education law known as Act 46.
"Searsburg has been very proactive and diligent in regards to Act 46," School Board Chairwoman Jacki Murano said of the law mandating school-district consolidation around Vermont. "We have worked closely with many school boards, local and across the state."
Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Pratt and state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, have "worked diligently for us over the last 16 months gathering information about several different options and avenues," said Murano, noting a study with Granville, Hancock, Pittsfield and Ira in a Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union committee and a Twin Valley Elementary Union district. Twin Valley, like Searsburg, is part of the WSSU. The Twin Valley School Board includes representation from the Wilmington and Whitingham districts. It operates an elementary school and middle/high school.
A non-formal study committee was recently formed with Searsburg and Stratton, which is currently in the Windham Central Supervisory Union.
"All the information our board currently has points to a merger between Stratton and Searsburg as the best case scenario for Searsburg and Stratton," Murano said, referring to a "side-by-side" district envisioned under the law. "Both towns are similar in size, budget, student count and policy so it seems to be the path with the least disruption and with equal representation."
If the districts decided to move forward in the coming months with a WSSU side-by-side district, she said a vote could be held in time for homestead taxpayers to receive reductions in their tax bills. Part of the law gives 8-cent, 6-cent, 4-cent and 2-cent breaks for every $100 of assessed value over the following years, But the savings depend on how fast districts merge.
Murano said her board plans to keep gathering all available information for multiple scenarios so the town can make an informed decision.
"Of course, the main goal of the Searsburg School Board is to do our due diligence for the town of Searsburg taxpayers and students," she said. "We are leaving no stone unturned or ruling any options out at this time."
Searsburg had come up in discussions during a Winhall School Board meeting on April 26. The board had voted to enter a study committee with Stratton and Sandgate. The prospect of having Searsburg join was mentioned but Searsburg has not voted to do so.
Stratton is next to Winhall, WCSU Superintendent Steven John pointed out.
"Winhall is very interested in having Stratton join them with Sandgate and Ira," he said. "That's a four-school district."
If approved, he said the regional education district or RED likely would be in the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, of which Winhall is currently a member.
Winhall School Board Chairman Marty Nadler said he will be visiting the Searsburg board on May 19. As of Sunday, he had not yet heard from Ira.
Any problem with this type of formation mostly has to do with location.
"Where are they voting on the budget on the same day? You have to vote by ballot," John said. "It changes how they do business quite a bit."
According to John, Searsburg and Stratton make sense as a side-by-side district with the pre-k through 12th grade unit of Twin Valley schools in the Deerfield Valley. Or there's the Leland & Gray Union High School District being proposed as a possible avenue for combining districts in the West River Valley.
"These side-by-sides have to be side-by-side with a k-12 unit," said John. "Searsburg and Stratton have the same population and same number of students."
He called the side-by-side proposals "politically attractive" from his point of view as he does not foresee any balance of power issues between the two districts. The make-up also retains more local control, he said.
Stratton voted in early April to join a study committee with Winhall and "whoever else would be joining," said Stratton School Board Chairman Tom Montemagni. And a separate study would be done with Searsburg. Part of the studies would entail looking at the option of joining the WSSU or BRSU.
Nothing was of particular concern as of yet for Montemagni.
"I think the concerns would be ironed out and light shined on them through the study committee," he said. "Once that is done, it will be up to the townspeople to decide on it. They might have their own concerns. Our job is to bring the results."
Montemagni said the districts involved in the Winhall study were talking so they could keep school choice for their students.
"I think that would be a given," he said.
Contact Chris Mays at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.