Saturday September 29, 2012

DOVER -- Two Windham County supervisory unions covering 15 schools and 1,700 students have agreed to explore ways to work together, share services and "achieve greater efficiencies."

There was no push for an outright merger of the county’s central and southwest supervisory unions at a meeting this week in Dover, but there was overwhelming support for further conversations about sharing technology, staff, purchasing and other facets of the two unions’ sprawling educational operations.

"There are clearly great opportunities," said Stephen Dale, Vermont School Boards Association executive director. "You may find that it really gets you somewhere."

Dale helped to coordinate the meeting Wednesday night of more than 40 board members and administrators. Surveying a packed room at the Dover School, he said he had "never been at a school board meeting that’s this big."

He also took care to point out that there were no firm plans for a merger or even for sharing services between the Townshend-based central union and the Wilmington-based southwest union.

"There’s not a concrete proposal on the table that everybody’s going to be reacting to," Dale said.

Rather, the meeting was spurred by a letter sent by Southwest officials to Central board members. Noting a statewide push for combining school resources, Southwest officials simply wanted to "open up the conversation," said Seth Boyd, the union’s board chairman.

"Can we realize any efficiencies in operations? I’m not sure," Boyd said at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting. "Can we take the best of the best ... and can we share those or combine those?"

Central union officials welcomed the dialog.

"We thought, ‘Why would we not have this conversation?’" said Emily Long, who chairs both the Central union board and the Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School Board. "Because what it’s about is improved opportunities for our students."

Dale urged those present to "try to come up with the best 10 or 12 ideas in the room."

So officials representing towns and boards stretching from Readsboro and Searsburg in the west to Newfane and Brookline in the east huddled for about 45 minutes at four large tables, with a group leader jotting ideas on large sheets of paper.

When they were done, Dale listened to brief presentations from each group and came up with several ideas for collaboration including:

-- Sharing administrative services. This idea, in what Dale termed "its most-extreme version," would involve the two unions having one superintendent, business manager, etc.

Such an arrangement would lead to inevitable changes in the way a superintendent, for instance, goes about his or her business.

"A single superintendent really can’t do the same things that they do now with twice as many boards," Dale said.

-- Sharing technological services and support. Virtual learning opportunities were one possibility mentioned Wednesday.

-- Shared educational staff.

-- Shared purchasing. This could include combined contracts for food service, fuel, transportation and other goods and services.

-- Shared grant applications and grant writing.

-- Collaboration on programming and "best practices" in the classroom.

-- Combined professional-development programs.

Officials did not commit to implementing any of those changes just yet. Instead, a majority voted to look at each possibility further by forming a a six-member, combined committee "to determine how the two supervisory unions can collaborate to improve student opportunities and achieve greater efficiencies."

The Southwest union’s vote was 10-0 in favor of that initiative. The Central union approved the measure by a 14-4 vote.

Ken McFadden, who sits on both the Newfane Town School Board and the regional NewBrook School Board, was one of the dissenting votes.

He noted that there already are complex, ongoing discussions about forming a regional educational district within the central union. Adding another, larger regionalization discussion is too much, too soon, McFadden said.

"It looks like we’re ramming everything down our towns’ throats right now," he said.

He also is not optimistic that two supervisory unions can cut administrative staff. Superintendents already are stretched thin, McFadden said.

"You’re not going to consolidate anything," he said.

But Boyd was optimistic after the vote.

"I think it was a productive meeting," he said. "I think there were a lot of creative ideas. And the only thing we’ve committed to is to continue to strive to improve our programs."

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