Amendments proposed to 'balance concerns' in newly merged school district

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BRATTLEBORO — Voters will decide if revisions should be made to a document that acts as the foundation for a newly merged school district.

"There are four articles and they are designed to balance the concerns of the towns regarding the whole unified or the whole merged board," David Schoales, school board member, said during a board meeting Wednesday.

Residents from the towns of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney will head to their polling stations Tuesday, Nov. 19 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. to vote on the amendments via Australian ballot. The board is hosting informational meetings at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Dummerston Elementary School and 6 p.m. at Brattleboro Area Middle School.

The first question asks if the board should be made up of two additional members from Brattleboro. That would change it from an eight-member board with two residents of each town serving, to a 10-member board with four residents of Brattleboro and two from the other three towns. Residents from the four towns vote each board member into office and they are expected to represent the entire district.

Board Chairwoman Kristina Naylor said there had been a lot of requests from Brattleboro citizens who felt the board should have more people from their town, the most populated. She noted there also is a lot of work to do.

"This is not sustainable for eight people to do," she said in an interview Sunday, "because people have to do so much committee work."

She explained that the terms are statutorily required to be staggered, so all the seats will not be turning over at the same time. Board members are elected on annual Town Meeting Day on the first Tuesday of March, not at the annual district meeting later that month.

The next amendment, if approved, would not allow for restructuring of grades in any of the school buildings in the first three years of the district's operation. The articles of agreement now only prevent that from happening until the end of next school year. The new district has been operating since July 1.

Before reconfiguring grades, the amendment would require the board to study for one year "the quality of student experiences, particularly regarding travel time and costs and student extracurricular activity participation." The board would need to "especially consider the impact on the most vulnerable students and any impact on food program participation. It also would have to look at how the change would affect the broader community.

"The board will work to mitigate any negative effects of school closure," the proposed amendment reads.

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At least one public forum would need to be hosted in the affected community or communities within the first six months of the study. A report would then be compiled within three months of the forums and presented to voters at least 30 days before warning a vote to change grade operation.

The reconfiguration would need to be supported by a majority of the school board. And any grade restructuring proposal would require affirmative votes from each town affected.

"I think this has been a concern from some of the smaller towns, that maybe the middle schools would be closed," said Naylor, who also recalled concerns coming up when the West River Education District decided to send all sixth grades in the district to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School. "We've seen in Windham Central, that has been very challenging."

The third question asks voters if they want to extend the time in which the district cannot close any schools. If approved, no schools could be closed in the first five years of the district's operation. Now, the articles only cover until the end of next school year.

Lastly, voters will decide if the articles should outline the purpose of leadership councils. Each school would have its own council made up of community members and school staff.

"So that was universally popular among all the study committee members," Naylor said, referring to a process undertaken before the merger. The transition board, made up of people who served on school boards for districts dissolved in the merger before new district board members were voted in, "recommended this go forward. And we think it's important. We think it's a good way to keep the community involved, and the leadership councils could advise the school board because there's no way we could be as embedded in the community when we're managing all the schools."

Naylor said the councils are advisory and do not have authority to spend money. The board already has a policy for leadership councils.

The district has 10 schools, Naylor said, so having 10 board members would allow for each board member to be advised by a leadership council. The idea is for half of each council to be made up of community members not employed in the school. The Windham Regional Career Center has an advisory board that will serve as a leadership council.

Ballots presenting these amendments have a mix of underlined and struck-out language. Words underlined are the proposed additions, which would replace words crossed out.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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