3 Upper Valley Schools Rethinking Planned Union

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/13/2016 11:54:22 PM
Modified: 4/14/2016 12:03:03 PM

Strafford — A school district merger that was poised to create the largest and most cooperative supervisory union in the Upper Valley now is threatened by the possibility of fragmentation.

As originally planned in a January 2015 vote of the Vermont State Board of Education, the White River Valley Supervisory Union would include 10 towns: Bethel, Chelsea, Granville, Hancock, Rochester, Royalton, Sharon, Stockbridge, Strafford and Tunbridge.

The vote, which takes effect in July, dissolved the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union on the assumption that its member towns would join with those in the Orange -Windsor Supervisory Union to form the sprawling new district.

But education officials in some of those towns — Tunbridge, Stockbridge, Sharon and Strafford — say their voters may have a different idea about how to best educate students from those towns.

“I just don’t know where this is going to go,” Orange-Windsor Superintendent Bruce Labs said.

Labs said that as the existing supervisory unions have begun to merge operations, they’ve seen significant savings — $800,000 in special education costs alone last year, and another $300,000 projected for next year.

Configurations that shake up that grouping could work against those savings, he said.

“They’d also be changing our supervisory union,” he said. “They’re going to be smaller and we’re going to be smaller. Act 46 was built on trying to achieve some efficiencies.”

Since last year, districts across the state have been scrambling to comply with the requirements of Act 46, an education reform law that encourages school districts to join into larger units that bring an efficiency of scale to education costs.

Don Shaw, chairman of both the Sharon Elementary School Board and the Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union School Board, said the Sharon district is deciding whether to join into a study committee with the other three towns that also might include Thetford.

“I know that Hartland was dialogued,” Shaw said. “I don’t know if they were going to be serious or not.”

Amy McMullen, chairwoman of the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, said Hartland is not seriously entertaining the idea of splitting with Windsor, West Windsor and Weathersfield to join a study committee with the Orange-Windsor towns.

“We’re in a formal study committee with each other,” she said.

The array of options before the towns is dizzying. The state has provided grants to pay for study committees to help them explore options, but even deciding on a study committee partner limits a town’s options, and so they have engaged in exploratory committees to weigh which study committees to join.

“It’s imperative you partner with the one you think will be the best match,” Shaw said.

Strafford, Sharon, Tunbridge and Stockbridge all entered into exploratory committees with other towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union; in addition, Thetford, Strafford and Sharon entered into an exploratory committee with Norwich, but Norwich pulled out of the talks, leaving the other three in ongoing discussions; there also has been talk of Strafford entering into talks with the Rivendell Interstate School District, but initial meetings have not yet led to the formation of an exploratory committee.

At least six options are on the table, according to Strafford School Board presentation materials distributed during a recent town forum on Act 46.

Three of those options would involve sticking with White River Valley. Strafford and Tunbridge could enter into a side-by-side merger that teaches pre-K to grade eight and allows full choice for high school.

Or, Strafford and Thetford could enter into a side-by-side merger that teaches pre-K to grade six, in which case Strafford would lose its program for seventh and eighth grades at the Newton School — but this is the only side-by-side merger option that allows Strafford to maintain its status as a special designated school of Thetford Academy, an agreement under which Strafford residents are guaranteed admission to the academy. Finally, Strafford could enter into a side-by-side merger with Sharon, Stockbridge, and Tunbridge to offer pre-K through grade six, an option that would allow choice for grades seven through 12, but does away with Tunbridge and Strafford’s existing seventh- and eighth-grade programs.

Labs said that during a community meeting last week, he came to understand that Strafford has a long list of concerns about sticking with White River Valley.

“Strafford’s not happy,” he said. “There’s a lot of sticking points. That’s pretty obvious.”

But Shaw said there are serious drawbacks to the options that involve leaving White River Valley.

“My concern with going out and forming a completely new supervisory union is that we wouldn’t qualify for tax incentives,” Shaw said. “We would have to hire a whole new management team, a new superintendent, a new business manager. ... We’d lose some federal programming, which would increase the cost per student.”

Two of the three options that involve leaving White River Valley see Strafford, Sharon, Thetford and Tunbridge forming their own supervisory union. They could do that as a pre-K to grade eight district, which is the only configuration that allows them to maintain their own local school boards, or they could do it as a pre-K to grade six district under a different type of merger, in which case they would lose their local boards but have full choice for grades seven through 12.

Shaw said that, in order to exercise that option, each town is relying on solidarity from the other three.

“All together, they do have the number of students necessary to qualify,” Shaw said. “But if one town chooses to opt out, then the whole plan is void.”

A final option is for Strafford and Thetford to enter into a side-by-side merger with Oxbow High School in Bradford.

Shaw said he’s heard concerns in the community about the loss of local governance that come with the side-by-side configurations.

He thinks it’s too early to know all the details.

“That’s what the purpose of the study committee is,” he said. “You go down that path and flesh it out. Starting out, it would be a gut thing. You don’t have the hard facts and figures when you first start out.”

Labs said the next milestone will be getting feedback from the Agency of Education as to which of these configurations would be likely to be approved by the state.

“The smoke hasn’t really cleared yet,” he said. “We need some clarification from the Agency of Education. Until we get that information, it’s a lot of speculation and ideas.”

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


An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect last name for Don Shaw.

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