Supervisory Union in Limbo: Plan to Break Up White River Valley Towns Put on Hold
Mary Floyd picks up her grandson Will Floyd, 10, from Bethel Elementary School Tuesday, December 17, 2013. Floyd taught at the school for 30 years and has served on the school board. The Vermont State Board of Education decided Tuesday, December 17, 2013 to postpone voting on a proposal to dissolve the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union.
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Whitcomb Principal Kevin Dirth encourages seventh grader Gabriel Clark, 12, to wear a coat after school in Bethel, Vt. Tuesday, December 17, 2013. The Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union remained intact after a decision on whether or not to dissolve the administration was postponed.
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Burlington — The Vermont Board of Education has put off a proposal to dissolve a school supervisory union in the White River Valley at the request of school administrators.
Opponents of the proposal, which was generated by a consultant hired by the state Agency of Education, said it didn’t take into account the full costs of moving the union’s six towns into other supervisory unions and the complexity of absorbing the additional students. Rochester residents fear that their small K-12 school would no longer be viable if the state’s plan is enacted.
“We have a number of unanswered questions,” said Brigid Scheffert, superintendent of Washington West Supervisory Union, which would have been asked to administer programs for students from the towns of Granville and Hancock.
In recent years, officials in the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union have been considering governance options in the face of declining school enrollments in the union’s six school districts, in Bethel, Stockbridge, Rochester, Pittsfield, Hancock and Granville.
Of those six towns, only the first three have operating schools. Bethel and Rochester have pre-K-12 schools, while Stockbridge Elementary School is pre-K-6. The other three towns have full school choice for all grades.
The challenge of reapportioning the supervisory union is an example of the difficulty the state faces as it tries to cut down on administrative costs by reducing its number of supervisory unions.
The current plan came about because of the impending retirement of Windsor Northwest Superintendent John Poljacik, who plans to step down at the end of February, but to stay on the job until the end of June. Efforts to hire a new superintendent, on a three-year contract, have been unsuccessful, Poljacik said.
Under the state’s plan, Bethel and Rochester would be placed in Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union, which oversees schools in the Upper Valley towns of Royalton, Tunbridge, Chelsea, Sharon and Strafford; Stockbridge and Pittsfield would be administered by the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, which comprises Woodstock and five surrounding towns; and Granville and Hancock would become part of Washington West, which reaches north to Waterbury and Moretown. All told, the plan could influence education in 22 towns.
Whether that influence would be helpful or harmful was up for debate Tuesday. Supervisory unions oversee budgeting, special education, curriculum services, transportation and other administrative services for their constituent school districts. With only 450 or so students, Windsor Northwest is among the smallest supervisory unions in the state.
About half of those students attend schools in Bethel, the largest of the union’s towns.
The state’s report notes that nearly $500,000 in administrative costs would be available for other educational endeavors if the union is broken up. But complexities of state law mean that taxpayers in some towns could be charged twice for administrative services for students who live in one supervisory union but go to school in another.
Moving Rochester and Bethel into the Orange-Windsor union would create a union with four small high schools — in Bethel, Chelsea, Rochester and Royalton — a prospect that Superintendent David Bickford said could enable the establishment of a magnet school. Bickford called upon the state board to fund an impact study on the reapportionment plan’s effects on school climate, culture and instruction, a request board members didn’t address Tuesday.
The greatest confusion expressed at the meeting had to do with Granville and Hancock, which closed their joint elementary school four or five years ago. Only three of the 68 students in the two towns go north to schools in the Mad River Valley, Scheffert said. Why would Washington West take on the administrative burden for students that don’t attend its schools, she said. The additional students would place a burden on her office and taxpayers would pay administrative costs both to Washington West and to whatever schools the children attended, since school districts build supervisory union costs into their budgets.
Scheffert suggested that Granville and Hancock should be required to dedicate the Washington West schools for their children. “If we had all of the students,” she said, “we would operate with our own infrastructure.”
But that would shift students away from Rochester School, which with only 100 or so students, could scarcely afford to lose the children from neighboring towns.
“We are geographically isolated in our little valley,” said Cathy Knight, principal at Rochester School. “We believe that it’s not a sound educational response to tear apart Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union.”
If the union is disbanded and Rochester School closed as a result, it would run counter to both Gov. Peter Shumlin’s and newly appointed Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe’s professions of support for small schools, Knight said.
Holcombe was in attendance Tuesday. Asked about the consolidation plan, Holcombe said “I think the starting point for the conversation has to be what are the opportunities to provide for children.”
The reception of the plan, both in writing and at Tuesday’s meeting, left Stephan Morse, the Board of Education’s chairman, frustrated at the slow progress of consolidating supervisory unions. The board voted down a plan earlier this year to consolidate supervisory unions in Bennington and Rutland counties. The board had intended to vote on the Windsor Northwest plan at its meeting Tuesday, and a majority of the board backed the plan in a straw poll last month.
“It’s not an easy topic,” Morse said after the meeting broke for lunch. “People don’t have the courage to stand up and do what’s right for kids,” he added. Lost in the discussion, he said is the greater educational opportunities students would have in larger schools, particularly larger high schools.
“There’s just no way that these kids are getting the same educational opportunities as in a medium or large school,” he said.
Local officials now have until June 1 to come up with a plan to reorganize the supervisory union. “It wasn’t a good idea,” Poljacik said of the state’s report. “I don’t have a better idea.”
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.