Shaftsbury to join SVSU Act 46 study committee

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SHAFTSBURY — After much discussion and disagreement, the Shaftsbury School District board voted to send Jeff Leake to represent their interests at the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee.

Unlike in Bennington, where six board members were vying for three spots on the initial study committee, no Shaftsbury board member seemed excited by the prospect of serving on the committee, which will study ways that the SVSU could comply with Act 46 that was passed this spring. Leake, one of two board members who was newly elected this March, eventually volunteered, but cautioned that he might not be able to make every meeting. Chairman Fran Kinney asked superintendent Jim Culkeen to clarify that joining the committee would not lock Shaftsbury into any decisions, to which Culkeen replied that the board would have to approve any recommendation from the committee, and joining the SVSU's committee would not prevent them from speaking with other districts. The neighboring Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union has made no secret that it are looking for partners to merge with, and that Shaftsbury could be a possibility, although the Shaftsbury board made no comments on this.

Board member Larry Johnson brought the board's attention back to the Regional Education District meetings of 2010, which did not end up resulting in consolidation, and asked what the difference was this time.

"What's different is that the state has put teeth into Act 46 that is king of holding our feet to the fire on this," said Culkeen. "We can't ignore it, we have to study it, or we run the risk that within five years they could come down here and consolidate us to their liking, and not ours.

"There are multiple options under it," he said. "What I'm hearing from other boards is that a lot of them are discussing what (the state) is calling Option Number 3, which is, we're already saving enough from the way that we consolidate our efforts now: special ed is consolidated, transportation is largely consolidated, administration, our contracts are universal, our policy manual is consolidated. So, the argument is being made that we're pretty consolidated already. The problem is, and the state's been pretty clear on this, is the bar to prove that is pretty high. If that is the option we want, we have to address that in writing by 2017, that we've studying it and here's why we don't think we have to go with Option A, which is their preferred model, a pre-K through 12 district, with one board, and a minimum of 900 students."

Johnson brought up the efforts by members of the legislature and outside groups to overturn Act 46, most notably a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, on the grounds that the spending cap imposed by the law violates the state's equity provision, and Campaign for Vermont, which is also targeting the spending cap, and says that the law will actually raise taxes for Vermonters, rather than lower them. Tom Pelham, co-founder of Campaign for Vermont, has pointed out that the tax relief incentives for districts that merge is being paid for by other districts.

"That doesn't come from God, it comes from the districts that decide not to merge," he was quoted by Vermont Digger as saying."

Johnson argued that consolidation efforts in Vermont in the past have not, ultimately, been successful, and that this whole issue could disappear.

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"I can't take those lightly," responded Culkeen, "but I also can't ignore the act that has been passed. Any act has a chance of modification or repeal. We're going to have a new governor. I can't predict the political landscape, all I can predict is what the Agency of Education expects me to do, as a superintendent, and carry that out as best I can."

"So, that's your position, to support the Agency of Education?" asked Johnson.

When Culkeen denied this, Johnson asked him to tell the board what his position was.

"I have an open mind on it," Culkeen responded. "I don't see 2,900 students (roughly the number of students in the SVSU) as particularly a big school district, from my personal experience. I've seen districts much larger than that function with one board, one budget. It certainly allows me to do things as superintendent that I can't do here."

He gave the example, which he has used before, of using the money saved from a retirement at the high school to address an overcrowded kindergarten in one of the elementary schools, which is impossible under the current governance structure, where each district has its own budget.

"I also understand the local issue," he said. "This is your school, your town, it's always been that way. You have your pride in your building, and you might feel that another district won't."

He also addressed the concern that Shaftsbury could eventually end up partially responsible for the cost of constructing a new building in Bennington, or Pownal, saying in response, "We have to do what's best for all students. I look at all the students in the supervisory union as my students, my kids, that's how I have to function. I think the jury is still out on what is the best option for everybody, to give everybody that equity."

Culkeen said that an option to satisfy the local control aspect, should all the districts in the SVSU consolidate into one, would be for the districts to give their buildings to their towns, which could then lease the buildings to the new combined district, ensuring that the buildings remained in the hands of the individual towns.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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