Voters OK governance plans for new school district

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BRATTLEBORO — Voters approved all four articles aimed to balance concerns within the new Windham Southeast School District.

"The passage of all the amendments addresses the biggest concerns from our communities," Kristina Naylor, WSESD board chairwoman, told the Reformer in an email. "This gives me great hope that our merged district can work together productively for all of our children and taxpayers."

The first question on Tuesday's ballot asked if the school board should be made up of two additional members from Brattleboro. The board will now go 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 each of the other three towns of Dummerston, Guilford and Putney.

That amendment had been the only to be opposed by majorities in any of the towns. Dummerston voted 129-56 against it, Putney was opposed 137-56 and Guilford was opposed 47-45. Brattleboro voted 310-36 in favor.

The second amendment will not allow grades to be restructured in any of the school buildings in the four towns in the first three years of the district's operation. The articles of agreement had previously only kept that from happening until the end of next school year. The new district started operating July 1.

Before reconfiguring grades, the board will need to conduct a one-year study about "the quality of student experiences, particularly regarding travel time and costs and student extracurricular activity participation."

The board should "especially consider the impact on the most vulnerable students and any impact on food program participation. It also will have to look at how the change would affect the broader community and seek to mitigate any negative effects of closing a school.

At least one public forum will need to be hosted in the affected community or communities within the first six months of the study. A report will 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 will need to be supported by a majority of the school board. And any grade restructuring proposal would require affirmative votes from each town affected.

The third amendment extends the timeline in which the district will not be allowed to close any schools. None will be closed in the first five years of the district's operation. Previously, the articles of agreement only covered until the end of next school year.

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The fourth amendment solidified the purpose of leadership councils. Each school in the district will have its own council made up of community members and school staff who will advise one school board member. The Windham Regional Career Center has an advisory board that will serve as a leadership council.

Altogether, 467-349 voted in favor of changing the board make-up, 623-186 voted in favor of amending an article's language about restructuring grade configurations, 634-176 voted in favor of amending an article's language about closing school buildings, and 734-80 voted in favor of adding an article with language about leadership councils.

Brattleboro residents voted 219-119 on restructuring grade configurations, 222-118 on closing school buildings and 305-37 on defining the role of leadership councils. Dummerston voted 158-26 on grade restructuring, 159-25 on closures and 163-21 on leadership councils. Guilford voted 75-17 on grade restructuring, 82-10 on closures and 85-8 on leadership councils. Putney voted 171-24 on grade restructuring, 171-23 on closures and 181-14 on leadership councils.

In the email, Naylor thanked her fellow board members, the boards that previously governed the now-merged districts and a study committee that explored how to comply with Act 46 "for the tremendous amount of work that informed the creation of amendments that the majority of voters in all our communities could support." She also thanked "the voters who took the time to understand these complex issues."

Act 46, Vermont's 2015 education law, had encouraged school districts to merge with goals related to improving student equity and finding efficiencies. Districts in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union had been ordered to merge by the Vermont Board of Education as part of its final statewide plan regarding the law.

After five years of working on governance issues, Naylor said she is looking forward to putting "a laser focus on the many challenges in educating" all of the district's students.

"I think this vote is a continuation of the sentiment expressed two years ago in the vote against forced mergers — people are tired of the political drama around schools and want us to get on with providing the best education we can afford for our kids," school board member David Schoales said in an email to the Reformer. "I am grateful for the support the voters just gave us."

He has described the articles of agreement, which had been amended in Tuesday's vote, as a constitution for the district.

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


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