WINDSOR — It's sink or swim time for Windsor Southeast's Act 46 Study Committee: The volunteer group must agree on unification options at the next meeting in September or dissolve.
Windsor Southeast Superintendent David Baker says the committee has six proposals on the table and must "make decisions or disband the study committee."
If the study committee chooses to dissolve, school districts will have to seek other districts outside the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union to merge with or leave the decision in the hands of the state.
"We operate very well as an SU, but we do not meet the requirements of Act 46," Baker wrote. "This has been a tedious and heart-wrenching process. I still think it is sad (my opinion) that restructuring local districts was put on the backs of local towns."
School districts across Vermont are studying whether to merge with neighbors as part of a state education law. Act 46 is designed to encourage the state's 277 school districts to voluntarily unify into larger units to address dramatic declines in the number of students attending the schools in rural areas of the state.
Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union has a K-12 operating school district (Windsor) and two towns (Hartland and Weathersfield) that each operate K-8 schools and offer high school choice.
West Windsor, another town in the union, operates a K-6 school and offers choice for students in grades 7-12. The Albert Bridge elementary school has 84 students and relies on a small schools grant that it will lose if it does not pursue a district merger allowed under state law.
Four of the Hartland members of the Act 46 committee and two members of the public gathered on the front porch of a farmhouse in the Upper Valley of Vermont on Wednesday morning. Their task was to decide which proposals to support.
Baker's list of options includes three side-by-side mergers with various configurations matching up choice towns with Windsor, which operates a K-12 school system. Each option requires one of the districts to give up something. The group decided to nix one of the options: a merger that teamed Hartland up with Windsor.
Under one scenario, Hartland would give up high school choice and send all of its students to Windsor, and Weathersfield and West Windsor would merge to keep school choice. Instead of four school boards — one for each town — two would remain.
A number of members of the public and some of the study committee have been interested in an alternative structure that they are calling a 3-by-1 where the three choice towns merge together, leaving the operating town on its own. This would also mean there would be just two school boards, one for the three choice towns and one for Windsor. This proposal means West Windsor would either leave the supervisory union or give up the small schools grant.
In either case, the choice towns don't have the same operational structure and would have to work out what to do about grades 7 and 8.
Alternative structures as described above, must be approved by the State Board of Education. The burden is on school districts to prove they can meet the goals of Act 46 to increase educational opportunities and student achievement for all students in the district while operating more cost effectively.
The board gives preference to district merger proposals that have been approved by member towns. Alternative plans don't offer the same guarantees, which can be dismissed by the board.
Alternative structures do not qualify for tax incentives and districts stand to lose small school grants and "phantom student" subsidies that help buffer losses in student populations and help keep small schools afloat.
The SBE's guidance didn't daunt the Hartland group. During the meeting several alternative structures that were not on the superintendent's list came up and generated interest among committee members.
Sarah Stewart Taylor wants to keep a lot of options open for consideration because members need more data in order to make informed decisions.
"We have a lot of work to do. Let's keep them on the table so we can do the work," said Stewart Taylor.
One option from the superintendent's list that came up several times during the Hartland meeting and seemed to generate some excitement called for creating a regional high school. The study committee is calling this option a unified union district.
Under this merger type, all four districts would form a Pre-K through 12 unified school district with one board and one budget. Independent school choice would be phased out, and public high school choice under Act 129 would remain. A new regional high school would be created to serve all the students in the four towns.
At the July study committee meeting, West Windsor tried to nail down where each town stood on this option. But other towns were reluctant to commit.
The new union would have to grandfather the tuition students for the first four years while trying to establish a new school of around 400 students. It is not known how much that would cost.
"I am excited to study it," said Stewart Taylor. "We could create something totally new and put the programs in that we want."
But another committee member, Bettina Read, chair of the Hartland School Board, felt that most residents care more about choosing a high school for their student than having a stake in creating a new public high school. She also didn't think they would be swayed by the idea of having more say in the running of a high school — something they do not currently have since they tuition students to multiple schools.
Right now, towns like Hartland's elementary school budgets can be at the mercy of tuition bills for the high school students. There is no way for them to control tuition cost and the only thing they do have control over is the elementary school budget, so that is where the cuts have to come from.
"We have different operating structures," said Stewart Taylor, "and we have strong feelings on every side."
Hartland School Director Scott Richardson said he wanted the study committee to spend time envisioning what a unified union high school could be. "We are stuck on mechanisms and money and we are not imagining what could be," he said. "I'm holding out hope that a unified union school district will rise from this discussion."
Tiffany Danitz Pache is VTDigger's education reporter.