Tuesday September 18, 2012

TOWNSHEND -- Efforts to create a regional school district were dealt a blow in July when representatives from the Town of Windham announced that they were bowing out.

But that has not halted talks among four remaining towns. On Oct. 3, representatives of those areas -- Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane and Townshend -- will meet to discuss what their next steps might be.

"These representatives will have to decide whether they can proceed," said Steven John, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent.

The group -- known as a Regional Education District Study Committee, or R.E.D. -- had been taking a long look at forming one school district for the five towns, which currently are served by four elementary schools and Leland & Gray Union High School.

In addition to the formation of one board to oversee the schools, the plan called for consolidation of elementary schools in Windham, Townshend and Jamaica. Newfane and Brookline students already attend the regional NewBrook Elementary.

The Vermont Department of Education has been encouraging such regional mergers as ways to reduce costs, create efficiencies and give students "broader opportunities."

But Windham school board officials at a July meeting said they no longer would participate. Board member Carolyn Partridge said that position was reaffirmed during a community forum last week.

"The vast majority of the people there were supportive of the decision that we made," Partridge said. "We felt that it was important to let the community know what the process had been, what the timeline was and why we decided to withdraw."

Windham officials' regionalization concerns included the potential location of a new elementary -- "We are miles from anyone else," Partridge said -- as well as losing local control over school closures.

"We would not allow any authority other than the voters of the Town of Windham to close our school," she said.

In the end, Partridge said board members "could not see how this would improve educational opportunities for Windham students."

That means Windham will continue to have an independent board overseeing an independent school serving students from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Representatives of the other four towns now must decide what opportunities -- if any -- remain for them in regional education talks. They'll meet at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 in Leland & Gray's library.

Each town's school board was tasked with discussing the issue this month, said John Everitt, a consultant contracted by Vermont School Boards Association to assist in the process.

"We'll get that information first," Everitt said.

The remaining committee members may decide that the process should end. Or they could opt to pursue a "modified unified union school district," which is applicable when "one or more towns do not want to form a unified school district but the majority do," Everitt said.

If the committee pursues the latter option, "the next step is to send the articles of agreement among the four towns to the state Department of Education," John said.

And if the state approves, final authority rests with voters in each town.

"The citizens are the ones who make the decision," Everitt said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.