Leland & Gray

Long-term planning discussions with the West River Education District Board have touched on operating without Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School and an elementary school. 

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TOWNSHEND — With a countdown to budget season underway, the West River Education District School Board’s long-term planning process is coming to a crucial point.

“We have 60 days to make a decision about the operational structure of our buildings and what is that going to look like July ’23, and also what is the longer-term work,” Superintendent Bill Anton said at the board meeting Wednesday, “not only making a decision for the budget but also what is the longer-term goal for structure that the board will be giving to the public.”

The next long-term planning meeting is scheduled for Aug. 1 and will include a review of information previously presented by task forces looking at elementary and secondary education in the district, financial implications for closing schools, high school graduation data and school quality information published by the Vermont Agency of Education.

Anton said he’s being asked by the board to check in with an attorney to clarify different considerations communities may take in trying to exit the district, as Jamaica residents have suggested. He also agreed to ask how the district’s articles of agreement, which merged previously individual school districts together, could be amended to guarantee no school closures to help ensure job security for staff and teachers.

Last year, a committee presented an idea to host a single campus in Townshend and an immersive learning center in Jamaica. In October, the board voted 9-2 to budget for the current building configurations of three elementary schools in the district and Leland & Gray.

Long-term planning continued with public input prioritized. About 20 community members volunteered to serve on task forces and surveyed residents from the district member towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham.

In June, the board heard from the task forces. Presentations touched on the potential of closing an elementary school and Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.

“The board has a tough decision to make and it’s definitely not going to completely please everyone,” board member Lindsey Bertram said at the time. “We really need to look for small wins. There’s a lot of things that everyone can get behind, and the more of those things that we can put together, the easier it’s going to be for everyone to get on board with whatever we choose to do.”

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Claussen said he thinks the board received “some pretty clear guidance” at a long-term planning meeting Monday that “we are looking for value.”

A quality report for the pre-K-12 schools has been identified as a project the district should undertake.

“We want to get a third party,” Claussen said. “I think administration, everybody, agrees that’s a fantastic idea to have a third-party review. It just further emphasizes what we do as a school and any necessary improvements.”

Anton said Windham Central Supervisory Union hired a group to conduct an operational audit of instruction in 2017. WCSU, of which the district is a member, has used that as a guide over the last five years for making improvements.

Board member Drew Hazelton, who served on the committee pitching the central campus last year, questioned whether the review would pause long-term planning for a couple of years.

Anton said he believes the review of the pre-K-12 schools could occur “quickly and be robust.” He also didn’t see it as requiring the board to stop decision making on operational structure.

Hazelton wanted a clear timeline on deciding whether school buildings would remain structured the same way.

“Because we’ve already kicked it a year,” he said. “To me, it sounds like we’re going to have our staff, students and parents hanging out, wondering about the future of Leland & Gray again.”

Anton said he sees structural changes and school quality reviews as separate decisions. The latter “is simply a deep dive into the value of what is being provided instructionally to our citizens,” he said.

“I could be wrong, but I would not suggest or want anything that would put off a decision that the board has committed to making by October,” he said.