BRATTLEBORO — The state Board of Education will now get its hands on a merger plan outlined for all but one of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union's member districts.
"I'm very proud and feel lucky that I've been on this committee," said Alice Laughlin, a Putney Central School Board member who chairs the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Committee. "I've gotten to know you guys and I'm really impressed with how much we care about kids. Good job. We worked hard."
The committee voted unanimously Thursday to send articles of agreement about a proposed merger to the state Board of Education. The committee formed in order to consider options under Act 46, the education law mandating school district consolidation around the state.
All members of the WSESU except Vernon will be deciding whether to become one district on Nov. 8, a day where many people are expected to be at the polls to elect a president. Residents also will be voting on whether to let Vernon out of the Brattleboro Union High School District.
Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney will all have to say yes to both questions in order for the merger to happen and then a nine-member unified board would be elected the same day. With an eye on maintaining school choice, Vernon has already voted that it wants out of the regional high school district. Vernon is the only school district in the state to offer school choice to students as they leave the elementary school but is also part of a regional high school district.
The study committee called off having towns vote on the merger earlier this year after the Vernon School Board decided to leave the study committee. That took the "accelerated" merger path off the table, meaning the tax benefits to towns involved in the merger have been reduced. If approved, instead of a gradual 10-cent to 8-cent to 6-cent to 4-cent to 2-cent break over five years, homestead taxpayers will now start at 8 cents for four years.
A draft of the articles of agreement and other information can be found at wssu.k12.vt.us. On Wednesday, the Brattleboro Town School Board approved of sending the articles to the state Board of Education in a 3-2 vote. Boards from Guilford and Putney had previously done the same.
Dummerston School Board member and Act 46 Study Committee member Amy Wall said "a fair amount" of education is still needed in her town. Three board members voted against sending the articles for state review. One member voted the other way.
At the committee meeting Thursday, Dummerston resident Paul Normandeau asked that minutes from a meeting in his town reflect discussion about people wanting to "please push the pause button."
"The message has been heard consistently," Wall said. "The sentiment of the board is the Dummerston community does want to improve what we offer students and how we offer it, and maintain the valuable involvement of the community in our local school."
Wall said she hoped to change the way conversations were going in her town.
"Personally, I've been to the different communities and heard from different townspeople from those communities and I do think that every other community is further along in this process and realizing the benefits for the students," she said. "I think Dummerston seems to be more stuck on the adult issues, that merging requires more adult change than actual changes for the children. And they haven't really been able to move beyond that yet."
Committee member and BUHS District #6 board member Ian Torrey said he supported the articles of agreement only to give residents a say.
"I'm voting to have a vote because I believe this is a matter that should go to the people," Torrey said. "I don't believe personally that a merger is in the best interest of our community but it is something that should go to a vote of the people."
Town School Board member David Schoales has concerns with the anticipated cost savings. A calculation in the articles of agreement estimates more than $1.9 million of savings could be achieved for the districts over four years.
"It is all speculative. There are no specific changes identified, just assurances that it will be easier to make them. There are no concrete reductions in staff or programming, yet they project $500,000 in savings," Schoales told the Reformer, referring to recommendations from a report submitted to the Vermont Legislature that analyzed how organizational changes could improve schools and address funding challenges. "The tax projections don't include any costs for the transition, like the legal fees for unravelling all these different properties and re-writing all the contracts. Once the incentives are gone, our tax rate will be well over $2, and our local boards and unique schools will be gone."
Schoales has doubts about the merger meeting the law's goal of improving inequities among students, too. He said federal money provided to the supervisory union can be better disbursed at no additional cost to the taxpayer.
"They're also saying the inequities are major and I don't think they are," Schoales said, regarding the elementary schools within the WSESU. "The main thing is they're not proposing any real program changes. They're not indicating which ones will come first. There's no sort of plan for improving equity or quality. It's just not there."
Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.