Windham board not happy with merger plan

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WINDHAM — Acting Vermont Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey and the Agency of Education are suggesting a merger for Windham Elementary School District, which has opposed one during earlier Act 46 talks.

"The secretary trusts that the community's concern for the well-being of all their children will impel them eventually to embrace the opportunities of a unified structure and work together to improve educational opportunities and equity for all students in the region," says a proposed plan released Friday by the agency.

The merger would mean Windham would have to join Jamaica, Townshend, NewBrook and Leland & Gray Union High School districts in the West River Modified Unified Union School District.

The agency said Windham's K-6 average daily membership has fluctuated over the last five fiscal years, staying in the mid-teens except for 20 students in FY15.

Even if the school gets a projected 35 students, it would be the fourth smallest K-6 school in the state, according to the plan.

The district is currently Vermont's smallest.

"Given the State Board's current draft metrics for small school grant eligibility, it is questionable whether the district will continue to receive the [approximately] $40,600 annually in statewide education funds to support continuation of its programs," the plan says. "Larger governance structures have been shown to provide the flexibility needed to reduce budget and tax increases, even out tax rate fluctuations, and allow small or struggling schools to stay open and programs to remain intact or be

expanded."

Windham Elementary Principal Mickey Parker-Jennings said he was not surprised at all by the agency's proposed plan.

"I don't think the state has a clue what is best for the children and residents of Windham when it comes to education," he told the Reformer. "To think we will have one representative on an 11-person board is a joke. I hope we will convince the state board in the fall that the merger is not in the best interest of these children or the families of Windham."

Windham School Board Chairwoman Carolyn Partridge, who also serves as state representative for Windham-3, plans on pleading the case for alternative governance structure. She sent an email to the agency offering to host one of the regional meetings where the State Board of Education will accept feedback from the public. That, she said, would give the state board a chance to see the geographic isolation and high quality of the school.

"We want our parents to be able to participate and help with the school," she said. "We just think we'll do much better, we'll be cheaper, more cost-effective. Our kids will do better if we just maintain our school board as is."

Partridge said the board spent countless hours on a proposal for an alternative governance structure but did not get to present it to the secretary of education or the acting secretary. It was April 10 when her group met with the agency and Rebecca Holcombe had recently resigned from the position.

Regarding the proposed plan, Partridge said, "It seems they lack really an understanding of our situation."

She worries community involvement would drop off if board meetings and budget votes were held in other places at later times. She said it is rare when community members do not attend board meetings.

Partridge believes that transparency and accountability, goals of the law, would not be improved by having Windham be part of a larger budget.

"As it is I get complaints about the Leland & Gray and supervisory union budgets because taxpayers don't really get a say over the supervisory union budgets; that's something that's voted on by the Windham Central Supervisory Union board in a representational way," she said. "Then with Leland & Gray, we have one member on that board and if they have an objection, they're easily overruled by other folks. And in the past, there have been concerns and complaints about the elimination of art and language programs at Leland & Gray. And our representative voiced her concerns and was basically overruled."

Another part of the law calls for maximizing operational efficiencies. Partridge pointed to a decision in Windham to have its own bus and driver as a way to save money. She said the first conversation with the MUUSD was about hiring an employee to handle transportation, security and facilities for $100,000.

"The School Board does all of those jobs" for $2,250, she said, estimating Windham's share would be $10,000 for the new district's employee. "We've also found they want to be able to ferry teachers around and use teachers differently and what have you. But the distance between the schools, it won't work. It takes 20 minutes to get to Townshend, if you're in a school bus especially, and that's on a good day when the roads and weather are good."

The law also wants to address student inequities. But Partridge called programs at Windham Elementary "fantastic."

"And we're happy to share and we do share," she said. "I think given the fact that we're part of the WCSU, we appreciate being part of the WCSU. We like Bill Anton. He's a great superintendent. All of the standards that apply to Townshend, Jamaica and NewBrook, all apply to us as well. In terms of equity of opportunity, we see that we're doing pretty darn well."

Anton said Windham board members believe in their alternative governance proposal and will be looking forward to presenting their case to the state board this fall.

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

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