Tuesday August 27, 2013

TOWNSHEND -- After years of planning and debate, voters soon will have their say on whether five Windham County towns should form a single school district.

The Vermont State Board of Education has approved proposed articles of agreement that would create a unified union school district in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham.

It now will fall to residents in each of those towns -- including Windham, where educational leaders bowed out of the regional study last year -- to approve or reject formation of the unified district in Australian Ballot votes scheduled for Oct. 8.

Those who have worked through the details of the regionalization effort expect to hold informational meetings for each town in the coming weeks.

"We know there will be a lot of questions," said Emily Long, a Newfane resident who chairs what is known as the RED study committee. "I have confidence we can answer those questions. Then, it will be up to voters."

The state was notified in late 2010 that officials would begin looking at formation of a regional district in the five towns.

Advocates for that regional effort have cited rising costs and declining enrollment as prime reasons for consolidation. And they are betting that a more-regionalized education structure -- at least in this case -- can boost outcomes and cut costs.

"We really do believe that, in this changing time for education, we need to make sure we are increasing opportunities for our kids and increasing our efficiencies as well," Long said.


Advertisement

Plans initially called for one school board to oversee the education of all pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students in all five towns as well as establishment of a consolidated elementary school for Jamaica, Townshend and Windham.

But Windham left the study last year, with one official from that town's elementary saying a unified district "just didn't make sense to us."

The remaining members of the study committee pushed ahead, eventually coming up with a plan that includes "contingencies" covering both acceptance and rejection by voters in the town of Windham.

If Windham voters -- as expected -- turn down the proposal, that town's elementary would remain independent. And the other four towns could go forward with formation of a regional district, which tentatively has been dubbed Windham Central Education District (WCED).

But all four of those remaining towns must vote in the affirmative, or else there can be no new district.

"They all have to pass it to make it work," Long said.

That vote will happen Oct. 8. Long believes that leaves officials sufficient time to educate voters in the five towns about the proposed district, and informational-meeting dates will be announced soon.

But it doesn't leave much time for those who would like to serve on the new WCED board. Petitions for those positions must be filed with town clerks before 5 p.m. Sept. 3, leaving candidates only a week to come up with signatures in their towns.

Long said the tight deadline partly is the result of a misunderstanding by members of the study committee: They had believed the new board could be elected after the regional district was formed.

As it turns out, the WCED board election must happen on the same Oct. 8 ballot as the vote determining whether the district will be formed. Board members would serve, of course, only if the district is established.

"Our intention was to elect them at town meeting, and we found out that wasn't allowed by law," Long said.

Still, she said, "I have confidence that we're going to have interest."

Board candidates must collect 30 valid signatures or 1 percent of a town's voter checklist, whichever is less, officials said. Anyone interested in serving on the new board can pick up petitions from their town clerks, from any member of the RED study committee, from the Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent or from the Vermont Secretary of State.

The new board would take the place of independent boards that oversee the towns' elementaries as well as the board that currently oversees Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend.

The proposed WCED articles of agreement -- which are available online at www.windhamcentralboard.org in the "RED Committee" section -- cover a variety of other details of the plan including:

-- A priority for the new district's administrators would be building a new elementary serving Jamaica and Townshend.

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

-- The new WCED board would consist of representatives determined by the population of the district's member towns.

"Initial board composition will be based upon the year 2010 federal census and shall be recalculated promptly following the release of each subsequent decennial census," the articles say.

-- The new district would be ready for "full operation" by July 1, 2014.

The board's initial work would be development of policies and operational procedures as well as consideration of contractual agreements for fiscal year 2015 and proposals for a new elementary school.

The board also would develop the district's fiscal 2015 budget, which would be presented to voters in member towns at their respective town meetings in March 2014.

An attachment to the proposed articles also details the potential benefits of forming a regional district, which officials sum up this way:

"The primary purpose of the formation of the WCED is to be better able to take advantage of the best educational resources and methods to provide the best possible educational experience for students of all towns," the articles say.

"The change is not based on concerns about local boards," officials wrote. "Rather the change reflects the growing understanding that a single governance structure will offer opportunities for innovation and efficiencies that are very difficult to achieve with the current structure."

Long acknowledged that the RED-study process was not easy and included many "ups and downs" over two-plus years.

"There are a lot of questions we had to answer, and it took us a while to get to the state board," she said.

But she believes the resulting proposal is better for it.

"I feel a lot more confident that we did take those extra months," Long said.

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