Windsor Central Schools Consider Merger

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2016 12:10:45 AM
Modified: 10/29/2016 12:12:22 AM

Woodstock — Voters in the Windsor Central Supervisory Union’s member towns might be presented with a plan this March that would change Barnard Academy and Reading Elementary School into pre-K–2 schools, and send more of those town’s students to Woodstock Elementary School and Prosper Valley School, beginning in 2018.

Reading Elementary School Board member John Philpin and Chairman Justin Sluka are against the idea.

“They’ve set out their articles of agreement and we’ll see what the towns do with those,” Philpin said. “I can only answer from a personal level and on a personal level my response is ‘no.’ Tell them to go back to the drawing board.”

“I don’t mean to put down the committee at all,” Sluka said. “They’ve been given an impossible task. But do I like (the drafted articles)? No.”

The restructuring is one major component of a draft of articles of agreement that would allow those school districts, as well as Killington Elementary School and the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School, to comply with Act 46, an education reform bill that seeks to curb education costs and improve educational programming by driving school districts into larger administrative units.

Under the articles, which are being floated by a study committee comprised of school board members from the constituent districts, the newly formed Windsor Central Unified Union School District would operate on a single budget under the control of a 10-member school board. The new board would be based on a model of proportional representation, and would have one member each from Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Pomfret and Reading; three members from Woodstock; and two at-large members.

Sluka said he was bothered by the prospect of ceding control of Reading’s school to an outside group.

“You now are giving up local control over what’s been happening over the Reading Elementary School system since it came into existence 100 years ago,” he said.

But Alice Worth, superintendent of the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, said the new board wouldn’t be favoring the interests of one town against another.

“We’re trying to build an understanding that this board is going to be charged with having the interests of all kids at heart,” Worth said.

Efforts to reach members of the Barnard School Board for comment were unsuccessful.

Philpin sees it as the latest in a long series of battles between the public school system, and forces that seek to undermine them for the purpose of privatizing education.

“There’s nothing new here,” he said. “The attempts at reform have been going back more than 50 years.”

Philpin said Reading’s school is currently doing fine, and already provides a wide range of programmatic opportunities for learning.

“The elementary school that we have here is an award winning school at both the state level and the national level. We do have Spanish. We have a music program,” he said. “We won awards for our sustainability program. We have a farm to school program.”

The drafted articles also ensure that, for the first four years of operation, the new school district would not be able to close any of its schools without approval from a majority of the voters in that school’s town, which seems unlikely.

However, after four years, the new school board could, after holding a minimum of three public hearings, vote to close a school. If the board votes to do so, it would be submitted to the voters of the member towns for a district wide vote.

Philpin is fundamentally opposed to Act 46, and says he can point to a mountain of research that demonstrates that consolidation does not save money, or expand opportunities, for students in rural spaces, where any benefits of consolidation are diminished by added transportation costs.

“It’s going to put us, in the long run, where education is going to cost more. It’s going to be devastating to the community,” said Philpin.

Worth said it’s too early to say what an individual school will look like in 2022.

“If we’re operating a school with 42 kids, is that the writing on the wall that we’re going to close in four or five years? None of us can predict the future,” Worth said. “We have to be as forward thinking as we can and take it as it goes.”

She said that one possible model for improving the long-term sustainability of elementary schools in the district’s smaller towns might be to expand their mission into “community education centers,” which could have classes for adults and seniors and therefore possibly merit financial support from municipalities.

“We have 55 kids now,” Philpin said. “That’s going to crunch that number way down, so the justification for keeping the school open is going vanish in one or two years. The same is true for Barnard.”

Another interesting feature of the newly drafted articles is a directive for the new school board to develop a policy for “intra-district choice,” which would allow families with pre-K and elementary school students to choose where in the district they would like to send their children.

Sluka said the committee should have voted to recommend or reject a district merger before drafting the articles.

“They’ve put the cart before the horse,” he said. “It makes it sound like it’s a done deal.”

Worth said that, while the study committee hasn’t formally voted in favor of the plan, it drafted the articles of agreement to focus the discussion and gather public input on a specific plan, rather than a series of hypotheticals.

“They are making public the intent and activities of the study committee,” Worth said.

Committee members will hear feedback and potentially make changes to the proposal through January, at which time it will send the proposal to the Vermont State Board of Education for review and approval. At that point, it will be officially warned and presented to voters during annual Town Meetings on March 7.

The idea, Worth said, came in part out of an effort to meet the state’s goals of achieving equity for all students. Worth said that, when the committee took a hard look at the individual schools, it was clears that students in different schools are getting different levels of services.

“One school might have a nurse in the building four days a week. Another school maybe can only afford a nurse one day a week,” she said.

Those inequities could also be found in the levels of administrators, and in educational outcomes, such as the average results of standardized tests. And for a district that wants to ensure equal educational opportunities, that’s a problem, she said.

Tthat realization is what drove the discussion toward a restructuring, Worth said.

“If we want to raise everyone to a standard that we can feel is satisfactory, how much money is it going to take in order to do that?” she asked. “Keeping in mind that the incentives that the state offers for mergers are one-time incentives that are not going to sustain, over the long haul, change in educational opportunity. What do we need to do to raise that kind of money? People began really understanding that you’ve got to look at restructuring.”

The next meeting of the study committee is open to the public and is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Windsor Central Supervisory Union’s central office in Woodstock.

The next public forum is scheduled for Nov. 9 at the Woodstock Union High School Library.

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

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