School Merger Plan Set for Vote

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2017 12:14:05 AM
Modified: 1/21/2017 12:14:07 AM

Woodstock — School officials from the Windsor Central Supervisory Union have finalized a roadmap for fusing its various parts into a single unified school district, and expect that the plan will go before Town Meeting voters this March.

“I think that we have put together a proposal for the state of Vermont that is bold, that is aggressive, that is thoughtful,” said Paige Hiller, chairwoman of the Woodstock Elementary School Board and vice chairwoman of the WCSU board. “… We really thought about how do we attempt to pull our resources together to give equity across the board to all of our kids, pre-K to 12, to get the best outcomes possible.”

Under the drafted Articles of Agreement approved by a study committee on Wednesday night, the new entity would be governed by an 18-member school board made up of two representatives each from Bridgewater, Pomfret, Barnard, Killington, Reading and Plymouth, plus six Woodstock representatives.

The district would be reconfigured so that Reading Elementary School and Barnard Academy, which currently serve pre-K to 6 students, would instead serve grades PreK-4 beginning after July 2018, when the new district would come into existence. Students in grades 5 and 6 would go to Woodstock Elementary or Prosper Valley in Pomfret.

Those elements reflect changes based on community feedback about a previous version of the plan, which initially envisioned a 10-member board, and pre-K to grade 2 schools in Reading and Barnard, according to Justin Shipman, chairman of the study committee that the constituent school boards charged with drafting the plan.

“What makes this hard is, it’s not like choosing a dessert where you pick the food you like the best,” said Shipman, a Bridgewater resident who also sits on the Prosper Valley School Board. “Instead, it’s like picking the meal that will be most nutritious. There are benefits for everyone and compromises for everyone.”

Shipman and Hiller said Justin Sluka, chairman of the Reading Elementary School Board, was the only member of the study committee who voted against the plan. Efforts to reach Sluka on Thursday were unsuccessful, but in October, he said he opposed the idea of ceding local control of Reading’s school to an outside entity.

Hiller said that she understood the sentiment, but that the options were limited in the face of pressure from the state.

“We’re trying to control our own space as much as possible,” she said. “We love local control, obviously, and I think we’ve had great success with local control, but I don’t know how long each individual school can maintain its curriculum when you’ve seen the pupil count go down over the last several years.”

The plan is one of many that have been drafted as school districts across the state rush to meet merging deadlines imposed by Act 46, the consolidation law that seeks to lower costs and increase school quality by pushing districts to merge into larger, more cost-effective entities.

Under the law, districts that gain voter and state approval for plans by June will gain tax incentives, while those that don’t will miss out on those incentives, and risk being subjected to a merger plan imposed by the state. 

Shipman said that the districts in WCSU, which have held a series of unsuccessful merger talks in the past, are among those that needed the push.

“(Act 46) drove us to more introspection, harder conversations than I think we would have volunteered ourselves to have,” he said. “Having the mechanism, or the motivation to have those conversations has been invaluable.”

WCSU’s merger plan is one of at least 10 that have recently been, or are scheduled to be, reviewed by the State Board of Education before going to voters during Town Meeting in March. The WCSU plan will come before the State Board for approval in February, and Shipman said the committee has been given “every indication” that it will be approved.

But there are still many districts whose intense efforts have not led to a palatable merger option.

Sarah Stewart Taylor, who represents Hartland on the Windsor Southeast Act 46 study committee, sent out a statement announcing an upcoming meeting at 6 p.m. on Jan. 30 at which committee members “will begin our discussion of alternative structures under Act 46,” a discussion that will extend beyond efforts to unite Hartland, Weathersfield, Windsor and West Windsor into a single district. “After that we will discuss what a merger of Hartland and Weathersfield would look like, and then what it might look like if we think bigger and look to merge with surrounding districts in the Upper Valley,” she wrote.

Back in the Woodstock-based WCSU, the language in the committee-approved articles of agreement, which can be seen on voteonact46.org as part of a 94-page document, has been approved by most of the school boards over the past week.

The plan’s final hurdle will be Town Meeting voters; if all six towns approve the merger, it will go into effect as planned. But even if voters in one or two towns turn the deal down, an alternative version of the plan will go into effect for the four or five towns that approve it.

Shipman said that the Australian ballot voters will also be presented with candidates for the new district-wide school board so it can get up and running. At floor meetings, voters in each town will still elect members to the existing school boards in the various school districts that currently serve the towns, though they may dissolve in 2018.

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


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