School Choice Splits Towns

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/25/2016 12:05:19 AM
Modified: 5/25/2016 12:06:38 AM

Windsor — School officials from the four towns that make up the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union say an education reform law designed to bring school districts closer together could actually be the thing that drives them apart.

“It’s a very frustrating position to be in,” said Nate McKeen, chairman of the Weathersfield School Board. “Frankly, I think Act 46 is more likely to split up our supervisory union than it is to make us a better entity.”

McKeen and school officials from Windsor, West Windsor and Hartland say they’re preparing to ask the Vermont Agency of Education to grant them an exception that would allow them to merge in a way not anticipated by the law — or to let them continue more or less as they are.

The decision to seek the exception was made after McKeen and three other Weathersfield representatives to a committee studying different merger options rejected any further consideration of options that would cause Weathersfield families to give up school choice.

McKeen said he came to the decision because any plan that would send all of Weathersfield’s secondary school students to Windsor High would be a deal-breaker for the town’s voters.

“Based on everything we’ve heard over the last year and a half, ... we don’t think the people in Weathersfield are going to come even close to giving up high school choice,” McKeen said.

Over the past several decades, Vermont’s dwindling student population has made it increasingly difficult for small school districts to provide a cost-efficient education, which education reform proponents say had the twin negative results of dramatically increasing property taxes while diminishing the range of curriculum that could be offered.

When Act 46 became law last year, one of its major goals was to fight that demographic trend by grouping small school districts under larger administrative structures that can save money by, for example, combining bus and library services or lessening the number of needed audits.

Under the law, communities that don’t choose from the state’s menu of merged structures risk being forced to merge under a plan written by the state. School district action plans are due to the state in November 2017.

Also under Act 46, all of the towns in a unified school district have to have the same policy on school choice — in other words, all have to offer it, or none offer it. Windsor does not offer choice, while West Windsor, Hartland and Weathersfield do.

At Windsor Southeast, much of the discussion has revolved around merged structures that would cause Weathersfield to give up school choice — for example, if the four towns were to form a single unified district, all of the students across the district would have to attend Windsor High School.

That was the option favored by Amy McMullen, chairwoman of the Windsor School Board and the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union School Board.

McMullen and other proponents saw that option as an opportunity to boost enrollment and programming at the school, which had 294 students last year, down from 393 a decade ago.

“With all of our kids going to the same high school, the sky is the limit of what we could do,” McMullen said.

McKeen said that was simply not a practical choice for many Weathersfield families in the southern end of town, who live much closer to Springfield High School than Windsor High.

“Ironically, we’re going to be labeled as the town that deep-sixed the regional high school, but we send the most kids to Windsor,” he said. “We’re not curmudgeons. It’s just reality. ... It just wouldn’t fly in the community.”

McKeen said that, while the Weathersfield representatives came to the decision first, he believes that Hartland and West Windsor were coming to the same conclusion.

West Windsor School Board Chairman Bob Young declined to answer questions about the board’s plans. He said interested parties should attend a community forum scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on June 2 at the West Windsor Town Hall.

Bettina Read, chairwoman of the Hartland School Board, said Hartland wouldn’t consider giving up choice if Weathersfield isn’t, because the vision for the robust regional high school was dependent on all four towns participating.

“It’s going to be all or none,” she said. “I believe it’s off the table.”

Read said that only a minority of Hartland residents — perhaps 1 in 10 — seemed to support the concept of a regional high school, and that those who did seemed to be mostly interested in tax savings.

“But we looked at the financial models, and it wasn’t clear that there would be financial savings,” she said.

Under Act 46, districts also are allowed to merge into a structure known as a “side-by-side,” under which the four towns’ schools would merge into two distinct districts operating alongside one another.

But if the districts merged into two groupings of two each, one of the towns would have to join with Windsor.

And because a district isn’t allowed to offer school choice to some of its students while denying it to others, that means that “whoever went with Windsor would go without school choice.

“The tough part would be knowing who would go with Windsor,” McKeen said.

Now, because every option that would meet state approval has been considered and rejected at the local level, it’s not clear where the discussion might turn next.

Last summer, many school leaders favored a different kind of side-by-side in which Windsor would act as its own district, while Hartland, Weathersfield and West Windsor would merge to form a second district.

Read said the Agency of Education dismissed the plan last fall, but with other choices having been weighed and rejected, now may be time to revisit the idea.

Read said educators hoped to get approval for either that concept or for simply keeping things as they are — four districts working closely under the umbrella of a supervisory union.

She said that the working relationships within Windsor Southeast are characterized by just the sort of collaborations that Act 46 aspires to.

“All our buildings are connected. We use the same Internet,” she said. “We have a joint transportation contract. We just now are completing a unified teachers contract. We spent money on a unified curriculum. We don’t want to start over with all that.”

Board members hope to get feedback on those ideas during a meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 15 in Room 210 of Windsor High School, at which a representative from the Agency of Education will be present.

“We have to prove to the state,” Read said, “that we’re providing an education that meets the standards.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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