MANCHESTER >> Directors of the Manchester school district voted unanimously Tuesday night during their regular meeting to participate in a formal merger study committee with other neighboring school districts under Act 46, becoming the first school district within the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union to take this step so far.
At the same time, the school directors also approved forming a second "ad hoc" committee, to explore "other options" in addition to those which might come before the merger study which they presumably will be conducting with the other school districts which may choose to join in.
Essentially, the board adopted a recommendation from School Superintendent Daniel French, who proposed forming a merger study committee that would include Danby, Dorset, Manchester, the Mountain Towns RED (Weston, Landgrove, Londonderry and Peru), Mt. Tabor and Sunderland. Those boards are anticipated to consider and vote on this option over the next few weeks as they hold their meetings.
"The (Act 46 merger) study committee will look at lots of options but it will look at them from a group perspective," French said as the board was nearing taking its vote, which came after more than an hour of extended discussion about Act 46 and the question of how the full range of choices before Manchester could be explored. "The challenge is you're in a group dynamic — and that group will study lots of options I'm sure."
But the board could still look at other scenarios — restructuring the Manchester Elementary Middle School as an independent school along the lines of the Village School in North Bennington was one that came up — if directors felt the Act 46-based merger study committee wasn't giving due diligence to those, French said, adding that Manchester could "bail out" of the study committee if they chose to further down the road.
Act 46, legislation passed last spring, aims to improve the educational outcomes of Vermont's students and the operational efficiencies of the state's schools, at an affordable cost, according to the Agency of Education. A process of community forums, leading to the formation of a formal merger study committee with a budget and operating under the state's open meeting laws, is set forth in the statute. Several routes to consolidating existing school districts are outlined, from a fast-track "accelerated" merger to ones that play out over a longer period of time and lead to so-called "alternative governance structures." A range of financial incentives in the form of property tax breaks are established. These incentives diminish over time, and are designed to encourage school districts to push forward towards consolidating their governance structures by 2017. Districts which opt out of the process and fail to submit a plan for approval by 2019 may find find the education agency doing that task for them.
Whatever the merger study committee comes up with as a proposal for the districts involved must be first approved by a public vote before it goes on to the education agency and the state board of education for a final vetting.
But being locked in to one formal Act 46 merger study committee as the board navigates its way through the process of exploring the school district's options left some members of the school board uncomfortable.
"I want to look at all kinds of ideas and you would be naive to think the other 'dance partners' (a term frequently used to describe the various school districts involved in the Act 46 consolidation process) aren't considering those options," said Marybeth O'Donnell, one of the school directors. "I just don't like the idea of one way."
How the "ad hoc" committee the board voted to establish simultaneously with the Act 46 merger study committee will be composed is a topic likely be revisited when the board meets again on Nov. 16, There was general consensus that it should include community members along with representation from the school board, and operate transparently.
The board reached its decision to form two separate committees to look at future scenarios for the school district following a long discussion about Act 46 and whether it was going to be revised when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Chairman Brian Vogel noted there has been much commentary about the new law, some by individuals like Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former state Senator Matt Dunne, both declared candidates for their political party's nomination for governor, that suggested the statute as it presently stood might see some significant changes.
"There's a lot going on right now," Vogel said. "It behooves us to discuss this a little more and also discuss the timing about the fact that ... we had longer than we thought."
Vogel went on to note that while most of the discussion so far had been about what our school districts Manchester might merge with, there hadn't been a discussion about one idea that had surfaced at the community forum held two weeks ago where state representatives Oliver Olsen and David Sharpe presented an overview of the act and the alternatives it offered — that of MEMS becoming an independent school.
"To be fair to all choices and to what is going on, I think that is something we should take a look at," he said.
Jon Wilson, another school director, said he realized that Act 46 had unleashed a considerable amount of discussion and controversy, but thought the likelihood the core package of Act 46 would change significantly in the near term was remote.
"I just don't see Act 46 being scrapped, amended maybe, but we're not looking right now at merging, we're looking at studying merging, and I think it's a very democratic process," he said.
Later, Wilson went on to express skepticism about whether an independent school structure would prove to be sound from a fiscal perspective, noting that North Bennington and Winhall, the two communities in Bennington County which had restructured their former public schools into independent ones, had some of the highest tax rates in the area.
Steve Murphy, another school board member who joined the meeting via a conference phone call connection, also agreed with the idea that Act 46 presented an opportunity to explore all ways of boosting academic outcomes for area students, and that studying an independent course shouldn't be off the table.
"I think we should take this opportunity of Act 46 to re-evaluate what's best for the students," he said.
When the other districts proposed by French vote on joining the merger study committee, the committee will then decide on potential articles of agreement that would govern the new merged district before those articles are approved by the Vermont Secretary of Education. Voters in the towns involved will then each individually approve the merger following that approval.