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Schools Hope to Avoid Mergers



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2018

Montpelier — Representatives of the Blue Mountain Union High School community carried a blunt message to the state Board of Education on Wednesday: Force us to merge, and we’ll close the school.

The contingent of roughly 50 people wearing blue and gold “We Choose BMU” T-Shirts were among a few lively groups of Upper Valley educators, parents and students who went to the Statehouse to argue against mandatory mergers.

In June, the Vermont Agency of Education released a 189-page report that recommended forcible mergers for 18 school districts, including one that would compel Blue Mountain Union District (Groton, Ryegate and Wells River) to join 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 through grade 12.

On July 1, the various districts joined under the Orange East Supervisory Union, but they maintain their own budgets and their own school boards. A single district would be governed by a single budget, under the control of a single school board.

The various school districts in the OESU gave the board sometimes-conflicting feedback on what the most desirable outcome will be.

Blue Mountain School Board Chairwoman Angeline Alley and board member Judy Murray revealed on Wednesday that a nonbinding advisory vote from the community held on Tuesday showed that 67 percent of residents favored shutting the high school down and giving high schoolers choice versus a compulsory merger.

After hearing the news at Wednesday’s meeting, the second of three state Board of Education listening sessions before it makes a final decision this fall, members quizzed Alley and Murray on an apparent contradiction.

“If you shut your school down,” state Board of Education Chairwoman Krista Huling said, “and you aren’t part of the district, you just write a check and you have no say in your kids’ education. ... I’m confused by that because you seem so passionate about your school.”

“I’m trying to reconcile closing a school in order to maintain control,” SBE member Oliver Oliver Olsen added a moment later.

Alley and Murray said they didn’t want to close their school down, but that school choice advocates in the community had gained political clout amid general dissatisfaction with the prospect of a merger, which would involve a loss of local control. There is a general perception that the high school would be closed by a merged board anyway.

“The very idea that a larger school board dominated by representatives from more populous towns, like Bradford, doesn’t sit well with anyone from the three towns that make up BMU,” Neil Emerson, a parent of two BMU students who lives in South Ryegate, told the SBE during a public comment session. “While it seems irrational to close the high school just because someone else can’t, the idea does have some merit. At least under that scenario, this is the thinking in our towns, our high schoolers would at least have a choice among several schools in the area and not just be forced to bus down to Oxbow.”

“We don’t want our students to be forced to go to Oxbow,” said Tracy Puffer, a BMU teacher. “We don’t want to close our school. What we want is to be our own district under OESU (Orange East Supervisory Union).”

After the meeting, Allanna Page, 22, said she graduated from BMU five years ago, and hopes that her younger sister will as well.

“I want her to have all the opportunities I have,” said Page, who now is a teacher in Gilman, Vt. “BMU helps every child get the best education for them. Bigger schools are more like a factory setting.”

Page said she had a hard time reading the “poker faces” of board members, who will now make a decision about whether to follow the AOE’s recommendation.

“I really wish that we got some feedback from them. I find that very hard,” she said. “Our school board, you ask questions and they give you feedback on how they’re thinking.”

Blue Mountain was joined in its dissent by Newbury School Board Chairman Paul Jewett, who, among other objections, said “Newbury taxpayers will be facing onerous increases” under the proposed merger. “In particular, Bradford’s continuing $1.15 million bond will contribute significantly more to the combined tax rate than Newbury’s own $120,000 long-term debt. ... Even more important, BMU’s teacher contract has the highest staff pay levels of the proposed district and the other schools, including Newbury, would have to assume those levels.”

Kim Frydman, chairwoman of the Bradford Elementary School Board, said her community still favors a merger of Oxbow, Bradford and Newbury, but that they need more time to make it work.

“We will provide consistency and we will have the opportunity to provide each student, whether that student is in Newbury, Bradford or Oxbow to have an opportunity,” she said.

She said she was open to suggestions on the length of an extension, but that members have discussed something in the three- to seven-year range.

The 75 seats in the room were generally filled to capacity, with fresh groups of students, families and teachers rotating in as the time to discuss their particular school district approached.

The board also heard stiff resistance from Carin Park, chairwoman of the Barnard Academy school board, and Pamela Fraser, Barnard representative to the Windsor Central Modified Unified School District board.

Under the current structure, the Barnard Academy is the only independent district within the Windsor Central MUUSD; the AOE has recommended that it be merged into the larger district.

Fraser accused the AOE of cherry picking enrollment data to support an argument for a merger.

“The secretary’s plan contains misleading and incorrect data about our school,” Fraser said. She said the AOE report ignores its own definition of enrollment by omitting pre-K students to bolster its case.

“Your job is to uphold the law, not the Agency of Education’s recommendation,” Fraser told the board.

Park said that the sometimes-emotional response from the Barnard community is appropriate, as members fear that a merger would lead to a shuttering of the academy.

“It’s both reasonable and important to feel passionate about the threat and to feel protective about what we have,” Park said.

During the SBE’s scheduled lunch break, just a few rooms away, Fraser joined other members of Vermont for Schools and Communities, a grassroots group that formed in opposition to the threat of state-mandated mergers, to announce the release of a report that castigated the Agency of Education’s merger recommendations as “unfair and unwise.”

Roughly a third of the state’s school districts, 95, have sought alternative methods of compliance with Act 46, a 2015 state law that seeks to address statewide student enrollment declines and educational inequities by herding school districts into larger administrative blocs.

In response to questions, members of the group said there is an informal ongoing discussion happening among school board members who also are attorneys, about the possibility of a lawsuit.

They said the decision of whether to sue the state would be done on a community-by-community basis, and that they hoped the state Board of Education would avert that possibility by bucking the Agency of Education’s advice on certain merger proposals.

Asked whether granting exceptions to unmerged districts would be unfair to districts that have merged, reluctantly, because they felt there was no other choice, Fraser replied that the agency is overstepping the requirements of Act 46.

“If they merged because they believed they had no choice, that was their mistake,” she said.

The June AOE report agreed that other area districts, including in Strafford, Sharon, Weathersfield and Hartland, do not need to merge to comply with Act 46.

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