WESTMINSTER — It’s final: the Vermont Board of Education has blessed the Act 46 divorce of Westminster, Grafton and Athens.
Meeting in hybrid session Wednesday, the board threw one last-minute obstacle in Westminster’s way, as board members wanted to hear directly from the new supervisory union chairwoman before signing off on the separation of the three small towns’ school districts.
The only problem: that person, Jessa Westclark of Grafton, wasn’t listening in.
Jack Bryar, chairman of the Windham Northeast Unified Elementary Board, was tasked by state board Chairman Oliver Olsen of Londonderry to rustle up the supervisory union representatives, to make sure, in Olsen’s words, they supported Westminster rejoining the supervisory union before next July 1, the previous deadline set by the state.
Bryar and Cheryl Charles of Westminster, the new chairwoman of the newly reconstituted Westminster School Board, assured Olsen and other board members they had the support of the supervisory union.
Charles said after the final approval that it means Westminster can fully participate in the budget making by the supervisory union, which constitutes about one-third of total school spending.
The move also ensures that Westminster will have a full role in the selection of the new Windham Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent and assistant superintendent.
WNESU Superintendent Christopher Pratt resigned on Aug. 28, and his assistant, Lynn Carey, resigned a few days later. The board accepted Pratt’s resignation effective Sept. 28, but forced Carey to leave immediately.
Since then, the supervisory union has promoted its special education director, Andrew Haas, to be interim superintendent. Adding to the change, longtime WNESU Board Chairman David Clark resigned, saying afterward he felt he had lost the confidence of other board members after he lined up Haas to be interim superintendent before a board vote.
Charles said the board did not ask Haas any questions, but that Westclark told the board she had no objections to the language of the motions.
“While they did not speak to any matter specifically, the state board would have delayed a vote until we got them there. It was important that they agreed to the intent of the motions by not objecting to them,” Charles said.
She said she wanted to ask a few clarifying questions, and so did Bryar.
“The key point is that the state board voted to give the SU chair the authority to determine whether actions before the SU board involve the budgeting and staffing processes for the 2022-23 budget,” Charles said in a follow-up email. “If they do, Westminster has full voting authority.”
She said the state board emphasized that until July 1, 2022, Westminster’s involvement in the supervisory board would be restricted to those with budgetary implications.
Bryar said the little-known state law that allowed some merged school district to break up was “pretty damn vague, which caused everyone endless headaches.
“I think the final results were the result of using a bit of charm mixed with a willingness to litigate, and the result of our developing the clearest path as to how to proceed without embarrassing anyone. No one at the state level had to reverse past rulings, undo the unified district, or climb down from past statements,” he said. “I also think that the state Board of Education largely concluded we actually had some reasonable points. Westminster and Athens/Grafton don’t have so much as a direct road connecting them without going into another school district. During our forced consolidation we acted in good faith. We did everything we could to discover efficiencies and tightly link the communities, but there were no efficiencies to be had, and there was no way to overcome the geographic realities,” he said.
“The Westminster district couldn’t take meaningful operational control over a district that was funded based on a budget they didn’t create or staffing they didn’t agree to,” he said. “The members of the state Board of Education saw the logic of that position and said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ It was cordial. People agreed with us. It was a good meeting.”