Thursday February 21, 2013

TOWNSHEND -- Though it’s happening at a "snail’s pace," efforts to regionalize schools and consolidate educational administration in Windham Central Supervisory Union are moving forward.

The five-town study committee lost a member last year, and the remaining members have encountered a few roadblocks. But officials are closer to finalizing a proposed agreement that some say is essential to improving education in the sprawling supervisory union.

"We really do believe a change needs to take place," said Emily Long, a Newfane resident who chairs the regional study committee.

That change is deemed necessary because, as Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Steven John puts it, "times change." Advocates for forming a "regional education district" (RED) in the towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham have cited decreasing enrollment and rising costs as two big reasons to consolidate administration and schools.

The RED study committee was formed in August 2011 and included representatives from all five towns. But the process was dealt a severe blow last year when Windham pulled out.

Windham School Board Chairwoman Carolyn Partridge said this week that board members still believe it is best to maintain the town elementary’s independence.

"I feel confident that the Town of Windham would like to continue to have its own school," Partridge said. "Our kids are doing well. Our test scores are very high.


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And the notion of sending our kids away just didn’t make sense to us."

Long acknowledged that Windham’s exit "did set us back." But she added that "we came back relatively quickly."

So the study committee’s focus now is on forming a "unified union school district" among the four remaining towns. In what has preliminarily been labeled the Windham Central Education District (WCED), plans still call for one school board to administer all pre-kindergarten- through 12th-grade students.

Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School still would educate the towns’ students in seventh through 12th grades. However, there no longer would be a separate Leland & Gray board, of which Long currently is the chairwoman.

Also, the study committee’s draft articles of agreement -- which still are being tweaked -- identify forming a single elementary school for Jamaica and Townshend students as a "top priority."

Specifics of that plan, though, have not yet been worked out. The two towns now have separate elementary schools.

"Such a school would most likely be located on the VT Route 30 corridor convenient to the towns being served," the draft articles say. "The cost would be determined by a study of the anticipated needs and would be subject to a bond vote. In the case that a new elementary school is built by the WCED, the elementary schools in those two towns would be closed."

Officials are touting the educational benefits of a combined Jamaica-Townshend elementary, writing that it would "provide students in these towns an improved learning environment" while also saving money.

Officials say they don’t have to look far to find a successful, regional elementary: Since 2010, elementary students from Newfane and Brookline have attended the combined NewBrook school.

The study committee’s draft report praises educational advancements at NewBrook.

"Resources have been shifted to better meet the needs of the students," the document says. "Teachers have collaborated on special units and projects. The facility has been upgraded to provide a safe and enriching physical environment for the students."

There have been economic benefits as well.

"NewBrook has the lowest cost per student in our supervisory union ... and that was not the case before they combined," John said.

Officials also point out that there are demographic similarities between the two elementary-regionalization efforts.

"It just so happens that Jamaica and Townshend are almost the exact same student population as NewBrook," said Frank Rucker, chief financial officer of the central supervisory union.

Rucker believes elementary changes are necessary. Learning opportunities for students dispersed among the four elementaries are "not equitable right now," Rucker said, citing the difficulty of offering a large number of programs at small schools.

Overall, John said regionalization is key to ensuring the long-term economic viability of the local school system.

"The present model, in most peoples’ view, is really not sustainable from a tax burden point of view," John said.

The regional study committee’s next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Leland & Gray. Officials said they expect to discuss the proposed articles of agreement and to take questions from the public.

The next steps in the process would be finalizing the articles of agreement and sending them to the state Board of Education. If the board approves, then a special vote would be set in each town.

"We’re getting closer to that stage -- of sending the articles to the state," Long said.

But she was reluctant to set deadlines.

"We want everyone to feel comfortable with this process," Long said. "We want to do it right."

Part of "doing it right" is working out some remaining kinks.

For example, officials have been wrestling with the fact that even if Windham -- as expected -- does not participate in the new district’s elementary plans, the town still would send its middle- and high-school students to Leland & Gray.

That means Windham would have to have some voice on the new, regional education board.

The draft articles handle it this way: If Windham voters don’t vote to join the union, "the Windham School District will remain intact for grades pre-k to six and will be represented on the WCED board for matters related to grades seven-12."

There is another complication that arose after Windham pulled out of the study. State rules say a unified union school district can be formed so long as a majority of the involved towns approve it.

In Windham Central, that means a vote by just three of the five affected towns would mandate formation of the district. But study leaders say a three-town union wouldn’t work in this case.

"Without all four towns joining the WCED, no unified union school district will be formed and the current governance structures will remain in place," the articles of agreement say.

So local officials have requested a change in the state law so that the committee has the flexibility to determine the number of towns needed for a union district. John said he’s been told the "technical adjustment" will happen relatively quickly.

"This is not seen as something that requires a great deal of lobbying," John said.