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Vt. Officials Demand More Schools Merge



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Bradford, Vt. — After years of trying to entice school districts across Vermont to merge into larger units, the state Agency of Education is now asking officials to compel holdouts, including Bradford-area school districts and Barnard Academy in the Upper Valley, to merge against their will.

Barnard School Board members say the fight against consolidation is not over, and urged the community to lobby the State Board of Education to go against the agency’s advice.

Other area districts, including in Strafford, Sharon, Weathersfield and Hartland, have successfully argued that they do not need to merge to comply with Act 46, the 2015 education reform law that seeks to make the state’s public school system more cost-effective for taxpayers and equitable for students.

Over the past two years, voters in 146 towns voted to merge 157 school districts into 39 unified school districts, which allowed them to take advantage of financial “merger support grants” and four years of tax rate reductions.

But other school districts struggled to come to an agreement with their neighboring districts, with common objections being that mergers would result in a loss of local control, longer bus rides and school closings.

On Friday, acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey released a 189-page report that advises the State Board of Education to forcibly merge 18 school districts, and to give a pass to 22 others.

One recommendation is to lump the Blue Mountain Union District (Groton, Ryegate and Wells River) in with the Bradford Elementary School District, the Newbury School District and the Oxbow Union High School District to form a single unified union school district that would teach approximately 1,000 students from pre-K to grade 12.

“It’s what we thought their decision would be. It doesn’t come unexpected,” said Lucas Barrett, who is chairman of the Orange East Supervisory Union and is vice chairman of the Bradford Elementary School Board. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work to bring the communities together socially.”

Barrett said the board as a whole will be better positioned to discuss the recommendation after July 1, when the Blue Mountain Union School District will join the Orange East Supervisory Union to comply with a different May decision by the State Board of Education.

Unmerged districts made their case to be left to their own devices in formal Section 9 proposals that were submitted to the state for review last year. Blue Mountain argued in its Section 9 proposal that merging would not save money, would result in the loss of local control, could result in the closing of one or more schools and would force a relationship between communities that do not have a good working relationship.

Though it called the decision to merge a “particularly difficult decision,” the Agency of Education report was unmoved by those arguments.

“The (secretary of education) trusts that the communities’ concern for the well-being of all their children will impel them eventually to embrace the opportunities of a unified structure and work together,” according to the report.

Barrett said that he, personally, sees the value of the merger, and said he felt that he and other school officials made mistakes in earlier talks about consolidation that lent themselves to negativity.

“I take some responsibility for our inability to join together. There’s a lot of things we could have probably done better. I don’t think we laid the groundwork well enough,” Barrett said. “I don’t think we put the work in to create that sense of trust and unity that is required before the real discussions happen.”

If the State Board of Education follows the agency’s lead, it will approve the merger by a statutory deadline of November, and the merged district would be created on July 1, 2019.

Barrett said his understanding is that the merged district will not receive the financial incentives that the state offered districts to merge voluntarily.

Meanwhile, Barnard School Board members attacked the merger report as “unfair, inadequate, and (containing) factual errors” in a written response they sent out to the community on Monday.

The state report recommends that Barnard Academy, which teaches roughly 60 K-6 students, be merged into the Woodstock-based Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District.

“This is an unfortunate move that both undermines the intent of Section 9 of Act 46, and blatantly pushes forward the consolidation agenda at the expense of participatory and procedural democracy,” the School Board wrote.

Pamela Fraser, Barnard representative to the Windsor Central board, said on Tuesday that she and other area school officials plan to lobby the State Board of Education in Barre during a public comment period on Friday.

The written statement urges other community members to make noise over the issue.

“If you support Barnard Academy’s independence, it is important that you make that known in as many ways as possible,” the board members wrote.

Under the current structure, the Barnard Academy is the only independent district within the Windsor Central MUUSD; for grades 7-12, its students join with students from Bridgewater, Killington, Plymouth, Pomfret, Reading and Woodstock at the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School.

Elsewhere in the Upper Valley, the state report agreed with a joint report from Weathersfield and Hartland, in which the two single-town school districts asked to continue their existence within the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union.

Residents in those two towns wanted to preserve school choice for their secondary-school students, while elsewhere in the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, Town Meeting voters in Windsor and West Windsor approved a merger whereby families in West Windsor ultimately will give up school choice for secondary grades, sending them to Windsor High School.

Though it rejected many of the arguments that Hartland and Weathersfield made, the report found that the lack of a social connection between the two was “compelling.”

“The communities in these districts are oriented in different directions, have little interaction, and the majority of their tuitioning students attend different schools,” according to the report. “Except for their membership in the SU, they have no obvious connections. Because there does not appear to be any commitment of the communities to create a new definition of ‘us,’ there is scant likelihood that they will realize the potential opportunities of a larger, more flexible unified structure. More likely, unification would be blamed for any encountered difficulties.”

The report expressed hope that the two communities would merge in the future.

Sharon, Strafford and Thetford’s school districts were among a group of 10 where the report “found no possible or practicable way in which the State Board of Education can require a merged governance structure.”

Though it doesn’t recommend a merger, the report did recommend that the State Board of Education “consider” drafting a new supervisory union that would include the districts of Strafford, Sharon, Thetford, Norwich and the Rivendell Interstate District.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

  Correction: Members of the School Board in Barnard issued a statement decrying the recommended forced merger of its district into the Woodstock-based Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District as a move that would undermine “participatory and procedural democracy.” An earlier version of this story misattributed that statement.