VERNON — The first step in leaving the union high school district is complete for Vernon.
Residents decided in a 374 to 124 vote to withdraw from the Brattleboro Union High School District #6 because of Act 46.
The next step, said Mike Hebert, chairman of the Vernon School Board, is to draft a plan that the Agency of Education and the Vermont Board of Education can agree does not violate the intent of Act 46.
"We are going to do the work that needs to be done to insure that we do what is in the best interests of our students and our taxpayers," said Hebert.
However, he added, Vernon also must receive approval from the other four towns in BUHS #6 before the town can actually cut formal ties with the district.
"There is no easy way to withdraw from the district," he said, but when the supervisory union was established in the 1960s, the intent was to make it hard to withdraw. "You need the certainty and the stability to move forward. You can't just bail out. It would be chaotic."
But because Vernon is unique in the region in that it sends students to both Brattleboro and Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Mass., it can't be merged with towns that don't have school choice, said Hebert. If the four other towns — Brattleboro, Guilford, Dummerston and Putney — refuse to allow Vernon to leave, it would lose its school choice.
Hebert also noted that the state should slow down on implementation on Act 46 because the legislation could be changed when the legislative session starts in January 2017.
"On its face, the goals of Act 46 are laudable, but one size never fits all," said Hebert.
"Sure, the new administration could repeal Act 46, but I don't believe it's going to happen," said Ron Stahley, the superintendent of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. "There might be some tweaking, such as the board just came up with guidance related to alternative structures."
Both Hebert and Stahley noted the tuition cost to Vernon to send students to the high school, Brattleboro Area Middle School or the Windham Career Center wouldn't be much different from what the town pays now. But for Vernon, leaving the district would raise taxes by $18 per $100,000 of property value, said Hebert.
Stahley said he does not see any reason why the other four towns would not allow Vernon to leave the district, because of the town's school choice situation. The district has been in the process of drafting a merger agreement based on the assumption that Vernon would be leaving.
"On Nov. 8 there will be a two-part warning for the towns to vote on," he said. "One asks for approval to merge and the other is whether to allow Vernon to exit."
The supervisory union is hosting community forums to discuss the agreement, and on Aug. 25, the BUHS #6 Study Committee will vote on whether to approve the agreement. The district needs to get a stamp of approval from the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education before the agreement can be put to the voters on Nov. 8.
As he has noted before, Stahley said an analysis of a merger, which would eliminate the school boards in the participating towns and replace them with a unified board, shows the smaller towns would be able to offer more program opportunities to their students than they do now.
By merging their budgets, he said, the towns can share resources and save money at the same time. According to the study committee's report, "Opportunities will open to expand after-school and summer programs that could include academic, art, music, drama and physical activities," if the merger is approved. "We will have the ability to expand foreign language offerings, technology integration and enrichment opportunities through hiring and sharing highly qualified teachers."
In addition, "consolidation will provide more efficient financial planning and delivery of financial services. ... Purchasing supplies such as textbooks and technology on a large scale will lower costs."
Stahley also noted that the agreement as drafted takes into consideration the concerns that towns will lose local control over their elementary schools. The only thing that would change is instead of a school board reviewing the budget, school-based councils will have an opportunity to review the budget and make recommendations to the unified school board, he said.
Residents of the towns in BUHS #6 have expressed concern that a unified school board will give more weight to Brattleboro, which will have more members on the board due to its student enrollment.
"Never in my 15 years have I ever seen a situation where a board member from Brattleboro did something that would negatively impact the other towns," said Stahley. "Right now it is a well-run board that looks at the students as all of our students, all 2,600 of them."
According to Article 15, "Local advocacy through School Board Advocacy Councils," the councils will provide local input on school specific programs and activities, and will be made up of principals, staff members and community representatives.
"The District Board shall actively engage with district communities and individual school councils. The District Board shall regularly send a representative member to individual leadership councils."
Contact Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273. Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.