Windham Southeast merger advocates seek support online

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BRATTLEBORO — After a long and contentious planning process, proponents of a Brattleboro area school merger plan have taken to YouTube to make their case.

Members of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee have released a series of instructional videos to explain how they came up with a four-town merger proposal — and to argue for its educational merits.

The videos, which are available at www.brattleborotv.org, arrive in advance of a merger vote that may happen in April, depending on the outcome of a special vote next week in Dummerston.

While the clips take on a variety of topics including school spending and educational opportunity, the overall message is that it's time for a change.

"The realities of our school systems are changing," study committee Chairwoman Alice Laughlin says in the series' wrap-up video. "Embracing and adapting to change will open up opportunities to better serve the needs of our students and our communities."

But not everyone is impressed by the committee's online appeal. David Schoales, a Brattleboro Town School Board member and an Act 46 critic, said the videos simply reiterate "the viewpoints that the study committee has had all along."

"And I reject all of that," Schoales said.

Act 46, the 2015 state education law, pushes school districts across Vermont to examine mergers in an attempt to boost educational equity and save money. But that conversation has been difficult in Windham Southeast, which is one of the state's largest supervisory unions in terms of enrollment.

The study committee initially spent months pursuing a merger of school districts in all five of the union's towns - Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon. But that fell apart, in part because Vernon walked away from the process due to concerns about maintaining the town's unique school-choice setup.

Now, Vernon is involved in an ongoing effort to extricate itself from the regional high school union in order to pursue its own Act 46 options. That would allow the other four towns to vote on a merger of their school districts.

Only one town - Dummerston - has voted against Vernon leaving the union. Dummerston voters will consider the matter again on Tuesday.

One of the study committee's videos addresses that revote, making the argument that "the financial implications of (Vernon's) withdrawal are minimal."

Officials say Vernon's assets in the union district are roughly equal to its share of the district's debt, making the town's proposed withdrawal a wash. Also, officials say most Vernon students are expected to continue to attend Brattleboro's middle and high schools, albeit through a tuition agreement.

Most of the study committee's 10 videos, however, have little to do with Vernon. Instead, committee members are focused on promoting a merger of districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney, which would be governed by one new, nine-member school board.

The videos, produced by Brattleboro Community Television, are an attempt to present the committee's arguments in a streamlined, accessible way, Laughlin said Thursday.

"I, for one, do want to simplify things for our communities," she said. "There are some folks who want things to stay the same and don't acknowledge that doing so diminishes kids' opportunities."

Key points in the committee's videos include:

- The merger plan does not call for school closure. While there is a mechanism by which the merged district's school board could vote to shut a school, committee member Beth Bristol - representing Guilford - tells viewers that "no one wants small schools to close."

- Laughlin, who appears in several of the videos, disputes the notion that her committee pursued only one merger option. She says the committee examined alternatives but found that there were "numerous obstacles" to each.

The four-town merger proposal, she says, "offers the best opportunities in the most cost-effective way."

In another video, Laughlin argues that "nothing about our process has been rushed or lacked depth."

- Statistics on increasing costs and declining enrollment - two frequently cited justifications for Act 46 - are presented by Ricky Davidson, a study committee representative from Brattleboro.

One graphic shows that Windham Southeast had 2,390 students in 2016, down from 3,080 in 2002. Mergers can put schools in a better position to react to enrollment changes, Davidson says.

Another slide shows the supervisory union's per-student spending increasing by nearly $5,000 from 2005 to 2015; both figures are above the state average.

- Educational equality is another theme. Committee member Jill Stahl Tyler, who chairs the Brattleboro Town School District board, says many residents and staff want to offer programs that are affordable only in a consolidated district.

Currently, Stahl Tyler says, "we just don't offer the same programming in all of our schools."

Though Schoales serves with Stahl Tyler on the Brattleboro Town district board, he does not agree with her assessment. The fact that Windham Southeast's schools offer different programing "to me is a strength," Schoales said.

Schoales is a member of a loosely organized - but, he says, growing - group that opposes Act 46 merger plans in several Windham County supervisory unions. He contends the law is flawed, as are the study committee's arguments supporting the Windham Southeast merger.

"It's speculation," Schoales said. "There's no evidence that we have those inequities, and there's no evidence that we're going to save real money."

But Schoales also said he doesn't have an issue with the study committee producing and releasing its Act 46 videos.

"I think they have worked diligently at trying to solve the problems that Act 46 presented," he said. "If they want to put their side out, they're welcome to."

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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