Doing it 'The Dover Way'

Wyatt Smith, Caden Bettis and Liam Cummisky, students at Dover Elementary School, rehearse a scene during Trisha Denton’s week-long theater artist residency on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

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DOVER — The River Valleys Unified School District Board wants to examine possibilities for the way the Dover and Wardsboro elementary schools could be structured.

“We’re just asking for discussion,” Board Chairman Rich Werner said at the board meeting held remotely Monday.

Board members are interested in looking at how transportation, buildings and food services currently operate in the district. They also want to see how different options might play out.

The other part of the project is intended to explore how structural changes could look, which Superintendent Bill Anton has experience with regarding the West River Education District.

“They’re all imaginary. They’re all drafts,” Anton said. “I went through this process twice with West River and I was out on the front of the spear, and it is a very unpleasurable experience. The community gets upset because they think, ‘Oh my god, you’re changing everything in the community,’ and the kids start to get nervous about, ‘What is my world going to look like?’”

Anton asked River Valleys board members to be clear about their intentions because discussion about structural changes and school closures can cause division even if they’re only part of a thought experiment. Board member Laura Sibilia, a state representative for the Windham-Bennington district, thanked him for being “brutally honest and candid.”

“Any time we’re looking at big systems and contemplating really any change, never mind anything substantial, this can cause stress and it’s going to cause people to be uncomfortable,” Sibilia said.

Werner said not much has changed in the two elementary schools since Act 46, the 2015 Vermont education law, encouraged the merger of the Dover and Wardsboro school districts. He wondered about the potential for cost savings or improved operations.

“I think we owe it to our communities to take a look at possibilities,” board member Marc Schauber said, emphasizing the importance of having options that are “really academically sound. It could be that you guys think you’re doing the best you can right now.”

Anton said values outside of education also are important to community members and teachers. Any alternative presented “is going to be a loss of what currently exists” and prompt questions about why the review is underway in the first place, he said.

The West River board reviewed many options, with several including the closure of Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend.

“That’s all I heard about for five months,” Anton said. “That’s all the board talked about for five months.”

He also recalled a “not fun” meeting about three years ago when the River Valleys board asked him to present an option where fourth graders, fifth graders and sixth graders from Wardsboro would go to Dover.

Board member Kate Rideout questioned whether now would be the right time to undertake the project after dealing with a difficult year grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we don’t change, change might be forced upon us,” Werner said, suggesting for instance that voters could decide to cut the budget at an annual meeting.

Board Vice Chairman Rick Thorpe said it’s important to have conversations that ensure the district is providing the best education for students in the most effective way.

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to have Anton present ideas to run the district more efficiently in the future. Anton said he will outline a work schedule at the next board meeting on April 26 and be clear about the project’s intent on future meeting agendas.

“I think the big disclaimer on the front is: These are not recommendations for the board to act on,” Werner said. “These are just for discussion purposes.”

The goal, Anton said, is to bring back four or five different structural arrangements to accommodate about 150 pre-K-6 students with the two school buildings currently owned by the district.

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