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Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union Waits to Learn Fate

Burlington — The State Board of Education voted 8-0 Tuesday to delay a decision on whether to dissolve the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union until January but directed the Bethel-area school districts to work with the Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union and report back on the costs and potential benefits of a merger.

Vaughn Altemus, the education finance manager for the Vermont Department of Education, said he was confident that despite the complexities of a potential merger, it would be possible to undertake by the summer of 2016 with proper planning.

“The proposed extension doesn’t extend the implementation date, only the voting date,” Altemus said. “They will be doing much of the work they need to do anyway.”

Windsor Northwest consists of Bethel, Stockbridge, Hancock, Granville, Pittsfield and Rochester, and has only four schools for its 466 students — Bethel Elementary, Whitcomb Jr./Sr. High School, Rochester K-12 and Stockbridge Central School.

Orange-Windsor — comprised of Chelsea, Tunbridge, Royalton, Sharon and Strafford — has 945 students and six schools, including high schools in Royalton and Chelsea.

Under the proposal, five of the Windsor Northwest towns would merge with Orange-Windsor. The Board of Education voted separately Tuesday to approve the transfer of Pittsfield to the Woodstock-based Windsor Central Supervisory Union.

During discussion over the fate of Windsor Northwest, Frank Russell, a member of the Rochester School Board, said there was a lack of local support for a merger in his community. Russell proposed a year-long extension, during which a “detailed and locally supported plan for the restructuring of Windsor Northwest” could be produced.

Carl Groppe, chairman of the Windsor Northwest school board, reiterated many of Russell’s concerns.

Referring to the fact that the dissolution of Windsor Northwest has been in the planning since 2012, Groppe said, “There were a lot of good intentions then, and there still are good intentions now. But the process is a lot deeper and a lot more complicated than moving a name from one column to another column.”

David Bickford, the outgoing superintendent of Orange-Windsor, addressed concerns about the financial status of Windsor Northwest.

“In preparation for the May 27 school budget vote in Bethel, the voters heard from the board and their auditor that there was an additional deficit projected, something on the order of $425,000,” Bickford said. “This is on top of previous reports of deficits, ranging upward of half a million dollars. Given the fact that there is a strong likelihood that one or more of Windsor Northwest’s constituent districts will come to Orange Windsor, there needs to be clear and shared financial reporting.”

John Poljacik, the retiring superintendent of Windsor Northwest, refuted Bickford’s concerns about Windsor Northwest’s financial stability.

“Windsor Northwest does not have financial problems; the town of Bethel does,” he said. “We did ask for a state audit, but the state declined.”

The board vote calls for a preliminary report on a potential merger on Oct. 1, a final report in December, and a likely decision by the board in January.

Bruce Labs, the incoming superintendent of Orange-Windsor, said a merger, if it’s going to happen, should happen quickly to provide more educational benefits for students.

“Our kids are graduating without the skills they need, and we need to get moving,” Labs said. “I intend to ask tonight at our executive board meeting that we begin to plan for Orange-Windsor, whether or not the other districts merge. Unless you determine whether this is going to be a marriage, we need to move on. We can’t do a strategic plan and have the other district that might join us in a year or two, waiting to decide whether or not they’re going to join us. I don’t see any teeth in this unless there is some way of compelling us to have a meaningful relationship.”

Meg Powden, the incoming superintendent of Windsor Northwest, disagreed with Labs’ perspective.

“I understand that we’re all anxious to get going, but don’t force the marriage,” Powden told the board. “I’m not entirely convinced that all the districts will merge with Orange-Windsor.”

After the meeting, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said the board had taken “a positive step forward.”

Lauren Bender can be reached at lbender@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.