Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Towns Grapple with Act 46 Mandates

  • Principal JeanMarie Oakman, second from left, slaps hands with Karen Ammerman, a special eduacator, as she arrives with other new teachers in the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union at the Weathersfield School in Ascutney, Vt., during their orientation day Friday, August 25, 2017. After a morning information session at Windsor School, and a bus tour to Hartland and West Windsor, the teachers stopped at Weathersfield School for a luncheon. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent David Baker speaks to the SAU's contingent of new teachers at the close of their luncheon at Weathersfield School in Ascutney, Vt., Friday, August 25, 2017. "Our logistics are perfect for (consolidation)," Baker said. "Each building is seven miles from the next building. I can be in any one of my buildings in ten minutes." A study committee rejected two plans for consolidation under Act 46 in April. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2017

Weathersfield — Sean Whalen, like many of the Weathersfield residents he represents on the Act 46 Study Committee, was initially against a unified district in the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union. He feared that, by complying with Vermont’s school consolidation law, his town would lose school choice.

Many families cherish the right to choose which school their child attends after finishing the highest grade level in their hometowns, and having the school district cover tuition costs.

“Some people and families have moved to Weathersfield because they want to be able to choose where to send their kids,” he said during a telephone interview earlier this summer. And he could empathize: When he moved to Weathersfield in 2012, he’d been “excited about the prospect of, ‘wait, maybe my kid can go to prep school!’ ”

But the more he met with people from Hartland, West Windsor and Windsor, the more he warmed up to the idea of all four districts in the WSESU collaborating on a school they were all invested in.

Though he knew the vast majority of Weathersfield residents didn’t see it this way, he “came to feel like there’s a greater good to be had in not dispersing our children, and having us all pull together to join our talents,” he said. He thought the unified high school could be something that was stronger than the sum of its parts.

But this vision receded from view in April, when the study committee voted on the state’s two “preferred” structures for consolidating the supervisory union, the body that provides administrative services for the four school districts that are each governed by a school board.

One preferred structure was the four-district merger that Whalen had fancied, in which students from Hartland, Weathersfield and West Windsor would go to secondary school in Windsor after finishing the highest grade level in their respective towns. The other would have created two merged school districts: one uniting Windsor and West Windsor, and another uniting Hartland and Weathersfield.

In the end, neither received majority support from the study committee. This leaves the committee with the task of appealing to the state to OK an alternative governance structure that would merge Windsor and West Windsor, and leave Hartland and Weathersfield as standalone districts. The committee has until Nov. 30 to present its proposal to the State Board of Education.

In the meantime, each town will retain its school board that oversees the schools as they are currently structured, with Hartland Elementary School and the Weathersfield School as K-8 grades, the Albert Bridge School in West Windsor as K-6, and the Windsor School as a pre-K-through-12th grade facility.

So what emerged in the study committee’s long months of discussion that made the state’s preferred structures so undesirable to so many?

The short but incomplete answer is school choice — in a unified school district, families in Weathersfield, Hartland and West Windsor would lose the ability to choose where to send their students after they completed the highest grade level in their town — but study committee members say that the more complicated answer was that making Windsor Southeast comply with those preferred structures was a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

‘Asymmetrical Motivations’

Complying with Act 46, the education law that encourages small school districts to consolidate into larger entities, has forced communities to have sometimes difficult conversations about how well their school districts meet the needs of students. The 2015 law aims to reduce administrative costs and provide students with the educational opportunities that may not be available at smaller schools, and is in part a response to declining enrollment trends at small Vermont schools.

Between the 2010 and 2014 fiscal years, K-12 enrollment in Vermont dropped from 84,128 to 79,560, according to data provided by the Agency of Education. In the WSESU, total enrollment also declined, but not as sharply — from 1,170 to 1,145.

“For some, it was an easy call,” Whalen said.”I guess the towns have asymmetrical motivations, is one way to say it.”

This was self-evident in a survey taken in April, in which 66 out of 118 West Windsor respondents, and 73 out of 95 Windsor respondents, said a unified district would be their first choice. Only 7 out of 100 Weathersfield respondents, and 22 out of 196 Hartland respondents, said a unified district was their first choice — with 61 and 106 respondents, respectively, saying a unified district was their last choice.

Amy McMullen, who represents Windsor on the Act 46 Study Committee, said she for one had welcomed the prospect of a unified high school in Windsor and still hopes to see it happen somewhere down the line.

“We were willing to merge with any and all of (the other districts),” she said in a phone conversation earlier this month. But she acknowledged that, unlike the other towns, Windsor wasn’t grappling with the prospect of giving up school choice, since it doesn’t offer it now, and therefore had little to lose.

Though Whalen had nurtured high hopes about a unified high school, he remained sympathetic to many Weatherfield residents’ concerns that school choice draws families to Weathersfield, and without it, the town’s community and economy would suffer.

Plus, he said, Weathersfield has good reason to be defensive about the consolidation law. For many townspeople, Act 46 is one bead on a string of mandates that have worked against the town’s best interests.

In 1964, Weathersfield farmer Romaine Tenney chose to burn to death in his own farmhouse rather than see the government lay down Interstate-91 through his property; a few years before that, the Army Corps of Engineers built a large flood-control dam in North Springfield, creating a reservoir that submerged six farms, four covered bridges and some 40 houses in Lower Perkinsville.

“There are still a lot of people here with long memories,” Whalen said. “I could count on one hand, and I wouldn’t even need to use all my fingers on that hand, the number of people I listened to who agreed that giving up choice was a good idea.”

Whalen knew losing school choice was a dealbreaker for Weathersfield, and so he ultimately voted against the four-district merger in April, in solidarity with his townspeople.

The proposed merging structures didn’t make sense on Hartland’s side either, said Sarah Stewart Taylor, who represents Hartland on the study committee. Since Hartland and Weathersfield aren’t contiguous, it could be quite complicated to share staff and resources in a way that would amount to any real savings without closing a school or redistricting, especially because the WSESU has already consolidated such services as busing, food and special education, she said.

One of the major upsides of merging — at least in principle — is that it can improve quality and equity of education among students, both by cutting administrative costs and by offering students the enhanced educational opportunites provided by larger schools.

But Taylor believes these efficiencies are more likely to work in urban or suburban communities: Act 46 states that “the optimal size for student learning is ... in high schools of 600 to 900 students.” The Windsor School currently has about 300 students in grades 7 through 12, according to an end-of-year report, and was projected to gain only about 150 more in a four-district merger, McMullen said.

“I think people intuitively understand that in order to really create a high-quality, truly equitable, sustainable statewide system, the solution needs to be much bigger, much more regionally focused and more ambitious than these only-slightly-bigger district mergers,” Taylor wrote in an email earlier this summer.

And so, in looking at the merging options as a question of cost-versus-benefit, Hartland residents simply “didn’t see the benefits” of consolidating with Weathersfield or the other towns, said Laura Bergstresser, also representing Hartland, in an email.

“The biggest thing I’ve heard from those who are against merging boils down to, ‘we are happy with the status quo,’ ” she wrote.

Weighing the value of school choice was a tougher call for West Windsor residents, said Elizabeth Burrows, who represents West Windsor on the study committee.

“School choice is very important to us,” she said in an email exchange last week. But so is avoiding sky-high taxes. In addition to covering the tuitioning of students, West Windsor taxpayers also cover special education costs and operating expenditures within the supervisory union.

Closing the Albert Bridge School and tuitioning out West Windsor students wouldn’t slash a meaningful amount of money from the budget, nor would sending students in grades 7-12 to a designated school or two, Burrows said.

The other option was to keep the Bridge School open, but lose secondary-school choice by merging with another district. That would be the model in a Windsor-West Windsor district, with students from West Windsor going to Windsor for junior high and high school.

“We are directed by the state to come up with a solution, so we are forced into the position of maintaining school choice or reducing operating expenditures for our school, and we can’t do all of it,” Burrows wrote. “That is how it works in our state’s modern education funding system.”

‘Negative Places’

School choice, though one of the most hotly debated points in the consolidation discussions, was only one factor in the study committee’s rejection of the options the state had given them.

A unified district would also mean creating a single school board among all four towns, which some study committee members felt was bound to experience problems when it came to important voting decisions, particularly budgetary ones.

“The real issue is creating one school board to operate all these different schools we have, and to have a board with proportional representation,” Taylor said.

The study committee never reached the point of discussing whether the unified board would have proportional or equal representation for each town, said Peter Clarke, the educational consultant working with the committee.

If people felt they weren’t fairly represented, Bergstresser said it wouldn’t take long for resentments to rise in the inevitable situation of one town’s voters having a say in decisions that would affect residents of another town.

For example, some had bounced around the idea of a hockey rink at the unified high school, but Bergstresser thought this would have led to a significant bond issue; she doubted that Hartland voters would spring for a hockey rink., but if other towns outvoted them, they’d be stuck owning — and paying for — one-quarter of a hockey rink that they didn’t even want.

“If someone had suggested that we look into merging municipal operations so that our four towns had a single selectboard, a single budget and a merged voting district,” Bergstresser wrote, “I think people would be up in arms.”

The experience of one new unified school board in Vermont has fed the anxieties of some of the WSESU study committee members.

In 2015, six rural Vermont towns — Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, Warren and Waterbury — voted overwhelmingly to merge their school districts into the Harwood Unified Union School District, which grants school choice through eighth grade. Students then go to Harwood Union High School, which has served those six towns since it opened in the 1960s.

But by the time the newly unified school board took effect July 1, things had already soured: Only days prior, on June 20, an award-winning co-principal of Harwood Union High School, Amy Rex, abruptly resigned, citing the 14-person board’s divisive and hostile attitude and criticizing the “tenor … that will divide a community around the very cornerstone it should embrace — our school,” the Waterbury Recorder reported.

The article also quoted Superintendent Brigid Nease, who said the district and its supervisory union was “imploding” in part because “(a)dministrators do not feel like they can honestly identify the problems and inequities across the SU and make recommendations without being personally attacked.”

Taylor perceived these bitter personality clashes as a factor that must be weighed. In the WSESU, conversations leading up to April’s vote had veered into some “negative places” that did more harm than good to the relationships among towns, she said.

“I regret how Act 46 has forced us into these unproductive conversations and created tensions between neighbors and communities,” she said.

‘Room for Improvement’

Such undesirable outcomes of consolidation are not confined to rural Vermont supervisory unions. An investigative series in West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette reported that shutting down 300 schools in the 1990s had failed to save taxpayers money, and that the rising cost of transporting children to and from school had in fact dipped into funding for classrooms, offices and cafeterias. In Arkansas, more than 100 schools were shuttered between 2004 and 2011, which some felt had a negative effect on small-town communities.

This specter of school closure had been “the elephant in the room when talking about mergers with West Windsor,” Bergstresser wrote. The Albert Bridge School has between 70 and 80 students, all of whom could easily be absorbed by other districts. Bergstresser had to ask herself, is it fair to ask Hartland taxpayers to contribute to a school that doesn’t “need” to exist from a numbers standpoint, despite its vitality to the West Windsor community?

Though the closing of Albert Bridge School is nowhere on the WSESU horizon, Burrows lamented the widespread closure of small schools in general. In 1930, when the U.S. population was about half of what it is now, there were more than 262,000 public schools in the country. Today there are around 95,000.

“There was a time when small schools were a cherished part of our Vermont landscape, but now that perspective has changed, and they’re not as valued,” she said. “But a town without a school doesn’t grow. It only dies.”

Burrows and Taylor both expressed the suspicion that Act 46 is less about improving educational opportunity than it is about eliminating school boards, and ultimately schools.

The act states in its introduction that its goal is not to close small schools. “But nothing about it is meant to keep small schools open,” Burrows said.

Donna Russo-Savage, principal assistant to the secretary of school governance at the Vermont Agency of Education, denied that the state had such motives.

The point of Act 46 is to “require districts to analyze and evaluate the ways they’ve been doing business, and have serious conversations with other districts,” she said in a recent interview. “Whether or not that leads to a merger isn’t as important as having those serious conversations and understanding potential ways to improve.”

And, as Clarke said, “there’s always room for improvement.”

Though debates among the towns were not far enough along for him to feel comfortable sharing specifics, he did say that school districts in the WSESU are exploring the ways in which an alternative governance structure could lead to positive changes.

Sharing staff and other resources is one way to go about this, he said. In this vein, Burrows, who is also on the West Windsor School Board, said she and other school officals are in the early stages of implementing a “mountain-based integrated curriculum” at the Albert Bridge School, and hopes to establish it elsewhere in the supervisory union as well.

As part of the curriculum, students would explore complex questions related to Mount Ascutney — which Burrows cited as a major source of identity for all four towns — through multiple disciplines, such as ecology, local history and math.

“If it works, the project could really lift up our town and draw people to it — and Windsor, too, if we do it under the auspices of merging — but it would have to be excellent and organized,” she said.

In the meantime, though, the Act 46 Study Committee must contend with the difficult task of creating an alternative governance structure that their towns — and the state — will approve of.

There is still a chance that the State Board of Education won’t accept WSESU’s proposal, and force the districts into a governance structure of the state’s choosing.

“If we do (the proposal) right, nobody’s going to be happy,” Burrows joked. “If somebody’s happy, then it’s not a good compromise.”

And, given the diversity of merger outcomes in other small-town supervisory unions, it may not be easy to distribute this unhappiness fairly among communities.

“Act 46 has been like using a hammer to try and pound in screws,” Bergstresser wrote. “There is work to be done here, but it’s just the wrong tool.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.