WILMINGTON — With the Agency of Education's rejection of a merger plan for school districts within the Southwest Supervisory Union, local officials aren't giving up on their idea.
"We're still pressing forward, still trying to use our resources to get the report and articles resubmitted," Superintendent Chris Pratt said Tuesday. "I hope this is something we can eventually come to an understanding about."
The previously anticipated vote in November has been put off after the Agency of Education rejected a draft of the supervisory union's Act 46 plan. The law mandates mergers between school districts.
Windham Southwest districts were hoping to have a "side-by-side" model approved by the AOE. The supervisory union's idea had been to combine the Whitingham and Wilmington school districts, which already run Twin Valley schools together, with the districts in Halifax, Readsboro, Searsburg and Stamford. Searsburg does not have a school but has a school board. "Side-by-side" refers to a governance structure that meets the state's goals by merging two or more small districts that attach to a larger district and share services.
The rejection letter from Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe to Pratt was discussed during a Twin Valley School Board meeting at the end of last month.
Now, the hope is to have a vote in all the towns before July 1, 2017, The date marks the deadline for plans to be approved before districts are hit with a 5 percent tax penalty.
Pratt is worried about other potential consequences, too.
"I think a lot of people are upset, concerned and nervous because of how much is at risk. We could lose our small school grants and hold-harmless," he said, referring to a provision that protects small school districts from large and sudden tax increases when student populations decline. "We can't operate most of our schools if we're hit with a penalty tax and those are taken away. That would be devastating to these small communities, where we rely on those to keep running."
At Twin Valley Middle High School on Nov. 3 at 5:30 p.m., residents, school board members and AOE officials will meet to discuss Act 46. Public involvement is encouraged, not just within the supervisory union, but the region.
Pratt admits it has been difficult to gather citizen input — something the AOE wanted to hear more about in the report — as school boards are waiting for a plan to be approved before presenting it.
"We're getting down to the wire and want to make sure information we're sharing with the public is accurate and it's the actual plan," said Pratt.
He said he spends many hours working with WSSU Act 46 subcommittees "to try to amend the reports as much as possible to reflect what the AOE would like to see in the report to the extent we're not misleading the state or general public with regards to our intentions to what we can do to feel the benefits and quite frankly, where we're not going to benefit."
Versions are sent to the AOE to get their opinion in an unofficial way. The draft that was rejected in September was preceded by three or four others.
"Although it appears we'd be keeping the status quo, it's truly what the towns feel is best for their kids. Because it's not possible with the geographic locations and mountains in between to even consider closing schools," Pratt said, adding that shutting down a school would put kids' safety at risk.
He said buses cannot travel some of the roads in the towns with schools in the supervisory union.
How the merger plan will reverse declining enrollment trends, an issue that legislators hoped to address with Act 46, is still unclear.
"We don't know. We don't have a crystal ball," Pratt said. "The bottom line is they want to know how it will benefit us and that's a tough question to answer. I don't think anyone is going to have the same opinion on the pros and cons when there's so many expectations. We're just trying to do everything we can to work with all the parties involved."
The process is especially frustrating for Twin Valley officials. The Wilmington and Whitingham districts began consolidating schools 10 years ago.
The natural progression, Pratt said, would see the districts going from a joint to a unified union high school. The high school in Wilmington was no longer used for classes after graduation in 2014. The WSSU has its administrative offices there now. The supervisory union is the only tenant but there are talks underway to make the building a community center.
"I think the board wants answers why it was good enough then but not now," Pratt said, regarding consolidation efforts.
Another concern from the AOE had to do with a high turnover rate for teachers and administrators in the supervisory union.
Many of the teachers have been on the job a long time, Pratt said, but now uncertainty associated with Act 46 is changing that.
"We had teachers leaving in droves because they could go to other states and get another job," he said. "The turnover was in response and panic to teachers not knowing what would come of Act 46."
The supervisory union is losing good teachers, according to Pratt. Three or four teachers in Stamford, and an administrator and several teachers in Readsboro left because of the new law.
These are areas of the state "where it's difficult enough to get teachers," said Pratt, who worries about attracting and retaining educators when job security is a concern for current and prospective employees.
"I think there's a lot of backfiring happening here," he said.
Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.