West River Education Board pushes for votes on merger

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TOWNSHEND — School board members are going to be touring towns ahead of a controversial vote that could merge Windham against its residents' previous wishes to stay as an elementary school district.

"The idea is laudable," Rick Hege of Townshend said Monday during a West River Modified Union Education District board meeting. "But you should have a significant number of your members go so no one particular opinion seems to come out."

Board Chairman Joe Winrich said he would encourage board members to attend as many informational meetings as possible. They are happening at 6 p.m. May 28 at Jamaica Village School, 7 p.m. May 29 at NewBrook Elementary School, 7 p.m. June 3 at Windham Elementary School and 7 p.m. June 6 at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.

Ballots from Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham will be collected and tallied together June 11, when voters will be asked if the West River district should "accept" Windham as a "full member" starting in July. Windham currently votes on the grades 7-12 portion of the West River district budget and the other four towns vote on that plus the pre-K-6 portion.

The article had come from the State Board of Education's Final Report of Decisions and Order on Statewide School District Merger Decisions, which was issued Nov. 28.

It says the vote should happen before the West River district becomes fully operational on July 1.

Voters also will be asked if the West River district's 2019-20 school budget of $11,710,082 should be amended to include $450,039, which covers anticipated spending at Windham Elementary School for the coming year. Estimated spending per equalized pupil would be about $20,900. Currently, the West River district's per-pupil spending was approved at $20,774 and Windham's was approved for $24,648.

Much of the discussion at Monday's West River Education District board meeting centered around how much information to include in a brochure designed by Anita Rafael, who helps the Windham Central Supervisory Union with communications. The document will be mailed to registered voters and available at town offices.

Superintendent Bill Anton said the brochure was meant to stick to facts and stay away from opinions. Board members decided to include numbers in the final draft.

With the merger, Windham's school tax rate is anticipated to decrease by about 30 cents this year. Jamaica and Townshend would see approximately 1-cent bumps. Brookline and Newfane would stay the same.

Although the edit was never made, board member Mike Foley suggested the brochure include information about how Windham has stood on the issue in the past. The town "voted overwhelmingly not to join us," he said. And it also has been a party in litigation challenging the constitutionality of Act 46, the 2015 state law that brought upon mergers around the state with the goal of improving student equity and finding efficiencies.

Board Chairman Joe Winrich opposed Foley's idea.

"We're just trying to give the facts of the vote," said Winrich.

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"It's a pertinent fact," argued board member Ken McFadden.

McFadden also questioned adding costs to the West River district's budget when it had been rejected by voters in March then revised with a reduction of about $100,000 before getting approval in April.

Crystal Corriveau of Windham said most of the members of her community who voted on whether to be in the West River Education District merger in 2017 "had no clue what this Act 46 was. We had no information. We didn't understand it. I've gone to several of our school board meetings and asked questions and have been told, 'I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.'"

Robert Bingham of Windham, who supports the merger, said Act 46 is intended "to provide the best possible education to every student within your jurisdiction. I think that's what is happening here. I encourage it."

Board member Howard Ires of Windham attempted to cancel the upcoming vote by making a motion he said was based on financial information and the response from his community. McFadden seconded but Winrich ruled the vote "out of order" since it had not been warned on the agenda for the meeting.

Windham residents have spoken with the state's attorney general about the vote, Ires said. He told the board an attorney is being engaged in his community.

"We're setting ourselves up for a lot of liability," he said. "Do we have a legal reserve to defend this?"

Winrich said he thinks the district has legal reserve funds but the topic is "entirely speculative until we see legal papers or are contacted by an attorney."

Sally Newton, longtime teacher at Windham Elementary who lives in West Townshend, said the merger would be "destructive" for schools and communities.

"We're in turmoil up at Windham next year," she said, expressing concern about a contract she signed for the coming school year.

McFadden said he would hope the board would honor any contracts that Windham approved.

Anton told the board if the student population at Windham Elementary stays as anticipated, with 10 students, then he would recommend bringing one of the two full-time teachers to another school in the district as some positions will need to be filled. It is unclear what will happen though. School choice within the district would likely be opened to Windham students if the merger is approved.

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


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