Residents want answers before ed-district vote
TOWNSHEND -- Facing a skeptical crowd, committee members who have laid groundwork for a new, five-town school district said there are potential cost savings and educational improvements for taxpayers and students.
But during a two-hour meeting at Townshend Elementary School Monday night, the committee also acknowledged that there are few specifics and even fewer guarantees about the benefits of the proposed Windham Central Education District.
One member of what has been called the RED Study Committee went so far as to call an upcoming vote on the matter "a leap of faith."
Emily Long, a Newfane resident who has chaired that committee, framed the debate differently: The focus should be less on dollar amounts, Long argued, and more on "the future of our kids."
"This is an opportunity," Long said. "We believe in it enough to have brought it to a vote."
That vote will happen Oct. 8 via Australian Ballot in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham.
Representatives of those towns had talked for years about forming a unified educational district. In its simplest form, that would mean consolidating seven school boards into one 11-member board that would oversee education for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in all five towns.
However, Windham -- while still included in the Oct. 8 vote -- last year pulled out of the study effort. School board officials there have said they believe it is best to stay independent. Windham can reject formation of the proposed WCED district and the other four towns still could go forward. But a "no" vote in any of those remaining towns would doom the effort, at least for now.
Monday's meeting was the first of five informational sessions planned in advance of the vote. And there were plenty of questions and concerns from a crowd of about 35 people.
Beth McDonald, a Windham School Board member, said she believes students benefit from the current educational structure in the area.
"It does work," McDonald said. "So far, the kids from these little schools are coming together at Leland & Gray."
McDonald also declared that "a big part of the reason that we did pull out (of the RED study) was that there were never any concrete ideas."
That was a common refrain on Monday. Warren Beattie, a Townshend resident, asked for more financial details.
"It's hard to kind of swallow everything that you're putting out here," Beattie said.
He also worried about a loss of local control if the towns' school boards were combined.
"It's almost like taking your hometown-bank mortgage and shipping it out west," Beattie said.
That was echoed by Art Monette, a Townshend resident who said a larger, regional school board might pose a "major disadvantage" for taxpayers.
In the current setup, "the community, the people who live in town, know who's on the board and who represents them," Monette said.
He also questioned a unified district's benefits to students.
"As far as a sense of community, I've lived in Townshend for a long time and thought we had it," Monette said. "We have a great school. The school's paid for. The kids are well-educated. That would not be the same as a larger school."
That points to a key issue in the WCED debate: The study committee's state-approved report says a top priority of the new board "is to consider a proposal to construct a new school for the students of Jamaica and Townshend to provide students in these towns an improved learning environment and increased learning opportunities."
The RED Study Committee, however, sought to alleviate concerns about school consolidation at Monday's meeting. Any decisions about closing schools, officials said, would be subject to a vote in the affected towns.
Also, vacated school buildings would be offered back to those towns for $1. But any such decisions are far down the road, officials said.
"The physical structure is not changing, at least at this point," RED Committee member Neil "Bucky" Pelsue said.
It is clear, though, that consolidating schools would be one way to save money and boost educational opportunities in a unified district. Committee members say there is a good example close to home in the regional NewBrook Elementary, which serves Newfane and Brookline.
"I've seen a lot of changes at NewBrook," RED Committee member LeeAnne Parker, a Brookline resident, told the Townshend crowd. "I feel there are a lot more opportunities for those kids."
Frank Rucker, chief financial officer of Windham Central Supervisory Union, said there have been projections of potential cost savings in the proposed WCED based on what has happened at NewBrook.
"Even with a phased-out small-school grant, the Brookline-Newfane tax rate is substantially lower than it is in Townshend," Rucker said.
But officials repeatedly declined on Monday night to specify what the financial impact of a unified district might be. Before the structure of the new district is finalized, they argued, it is impossible to determine how it might affect spending and tax rates.
That will be up to a new WCED board that would be formed on the same Oct. 8 ballot.
The RED committee has "no authority to make a claim that says, ‘This will happen,'" Rucker said. "So they haven't done that."
Joe Winrich, a Townshend resident serving on the study committee, led a brief overview of potential WCED financial benefits. Those include state incentives such as a $130,000 implementation grant and four years of tax reductions.
On the latter topic, however, Winrich said there is "no crystal ball" to show what the district's tax rate would be.
"We can't guarantee what it's going to look like with any accuracy," he said.
There also are potential savings due to "consolidation of administrative systems" in a unified district. Combined auditing and budgeting were two examples mentioned on Monday; but, again, officials were reluctant to make predictions.
Long said there is a general concern that, with enrollments declining and costs rising, local boards will have to make cuts in educational offerings.
"Things are getting harder and harder," she said. "We're worrying about maintaining our programs."
But in terms of actual, immediate cost savings associated with a unified district, "honestly, our focus wasn't there," Long said. Rather, the committee has been focused on offering more educational opportunities to local students.
"We'd all love to have better education and lower costs," Pelsue said. "But I think what we want, bottom line, is better education."
That could happen, committee members say, through more staff flexibility. Though union affiliations would not change, a unified district might make it easier for a teacher -- say, a foreign-language instructor -- to float among small schools.
"It would be much more possible than it is now to share personnel across schools," Winrich said.
He added that, with costs shared among schools, "you may be able to keep a teacher that you might be otherwise looking at losing."
Committee member Bruce Parliman, a Jamaica resident, said there could be increased opportunities in arts, languages, technology and even cocurricular activities.
"It's conceivable that you could have several schools get together for a field trip," he said.
Parliman added that the towns' elementaries, under a unified system, might provide students with a "common and deeper understanding" of school standards and might better prepare them for merging at the regional Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.
However, there are doubts about the WCED even among some members of the study committee. April Chase, who serves on the committee and on Townshend School Board, said she believes advantages for students and taxpayers are long-term -- if they happen at all.
"It's a little bit of a stretch at this point," Chase said.
Steven John, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent, told the crowd that he questions the "sustainability" of the current educational structure. But he noted that unification will be left up to voters.
"This is an opportunity for people to go to the ballot box and vote how they feel," John said.
There are four additional informational meetings scheduled before that vote. Each begins at 7 p.m.:
-- Thursday at Jamaica Elementary.
-- Sept. 17 at Windham Elementary.
-- Sept. 24 at NewBrook Fire Station.
-- Oct. 1 at Leland & Gray's gymnasium.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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