Brattleboro forum offers final look at Windham Southeast merger articles

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BRATTLEBORO — Town Meeting Representatives and residents are invited to take a last look at articles of agreement for a potential merger with school districts within the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

"This will be the final presentation of the proposed articles of agreement to the community before the Study Committee officially votes on whether to send them to the Vermont Board of Education for approval," said Jill Stahl Tyler, Brattleboro Town School Board member and WSESU Act 46 Study Committee member who will be joined by other Brattleboro representatives from the committee for a forum on Wednesday, Aug. 25, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Oak Grove School.

The committee was formed in order to consider a merger under Act 46, the education law mandating school district consolidation around the state. On Thursday, the committee is expected to vote on having the BOE review the articles of agreement.

Other school boards in the supervisory union — Dummerston, Guilford and Putney — have had similar meetings. Vernon, another member of the WSESU, voted to leave the committee — and voted to leave the Brattleboro Union High School district. It is anticipated that the other towns will be asked on a ballot in November whether a merger should happen and if Vernon should be allowed to leave the union high school district. All towns must approve of letting Vernon out before it can happen.

Vernon is an anomaly, said Tyler. The school district is the only one in Vermont that offers its students school choice after elementary school but is still part of a union high school district. Officials in Vernon have worried about losing school choice in the merger.

Tyler has compared the crafting of language around a merger to the making of stew. She said the meeting Wednesday will offer a "final taste" for Brattleboro citizens before the recipe is submitted to the state. She plans on walking residents through the articles. Part of that will involve explaining why it's necessary.

"Because the state said so," Tyler said. "Merge or prove we're serving all children in the supervisory union equally well."

The committee has met at least 27 times since October, according to Tyler, and it was presented troubling data. The trends are not necessarily unique to the region. They have been cited by state officials as reasons behind Act 46.

"We have increasing costs. We're higher than the state average. We have decreasing students. We're down 22 percent from 2002 to 2016, which includes BUHS, Brattleboro Area Middle School, Windham Regional Career Center and all the (WSESU) elementary schools. Now what?" Tyler said. "Those are our realities. We realize we have differences in programming. I'm also calling those differences in student opportunities."

Members of the WSESU community worried whether they would lose a school in the merger deal. Tyler said a new unified school board would not be allowed to say "you can't use the school no longer."

"I don't understand where the fear comes from," she said, adding that no school closures are anticipated right now.

Under the articles of agreement, schools cannot be shut down unless a town decides to close it within the first five years of the merger. Then, towns would have the opportunity to purchase a former school building for $1.

The upside of a shared budget, according to Tyler, has to do with unexpected costs.

"If a little town like Guilford needs a new roof or $50,000 to $100,000 for some project, they don't have to come up with it on their own," she said. "All of us have to come up with that because it's a unified board."

Tyler looks at a leadership council, which is part of the proposal, as a way to offer more parental involvement in the schools' decision-making process. Teachers also will be on the council that makes recommendations to the unified school board.

The board will be made up of three members from Brattleboro with one each from Putney, Dummerston and Guilford. Three at-large members will be voted in and can be from any of the towns within the merged district.

"The union high school has this sort of a break out and it's not a problem. It works well," said Tyler. "The folks that are so concerned about how many voices from each town are heard, I think, are making an assumption that all of Brattleboro's representatives will automatically vote in black or all the small schools would vote as a unit. I don't really know that's true either. They're making an assumption of how people think."

Eventually, Tyler pointed out, all the students come together after elementary school. A merger could help with creating a more centralized curriculum, she said, noting that has been happening over the last few years anyway. And opportunities might increase for part-time teachers to become full-time ones if services are shared across schools.

Tyler anticipates the committee sending the article agreements to the state after Thursday's meeting.

"They can come back with any changes that we will have to look at again," she said. "They have had concerns about how much voice the leadership councils have and we've fought back on that a bit and worked with lawyers. Because all of us on the study committee look at this as a very big issue, that they still have input."

The issue of what to do with Vernon will come up on Thursday, too. School Board members there have mentioned the possibility of continuing to contract with the supervisory union but not being part of the merged district. Approximately 80 percent of Vernon students end up going to BUHS, according to Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert.

Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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