SHAFTSBURY — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Act 46 study committee made its first trip outside of Bennington on Monday, holding its meeting at Shaftsbury Elementary School.
The meeting marks the first of what will be several community forums hosted by the committee, which was created by the SVSU board to explore options related to the state's new education law. Act 46 encourages districts to consider merging into more efficient governance structures by offering tax incentives for those that move into approved structures, while districts that are unable to find mergers may be placed with a partner of the state's choosing. The board had intended to hold a meeting in Pownal in late November, but that meeting had to be cancelled due to a conflict with another meeting, and will be rescheduled.
The study committee is made up of Chairwoman Jackie Prue, from Bennington, George Sleeman, from Bennington, Matthew Patterson, from North Bennington, Jim O'Connor, from Pownal, Jeffrey Leake, from Shaftsbury, and Dick Franz, of Woodford.
"I personally don't feel that Act 46 pertains too much to Bennington," said Sleeman to the several assembled Shaftsbury residents, "and I think that most people know that I would not stand in the way of smaller districts wanting to bond together to form their own supervisory unions. Personally, I've lived in this area close to 90 years, and I was a former superintendent for Shaftsbury, and for all of these districts, including Arlington. I've yet to find anybody, in any of these communities, that will sit down and talk with you and, honestly, really favor giving up their individual school districts to merge them into another school district. I can tell you that Pownal doesn't want it, I can tell you that Woodford doesn't want it, I can tell you that North Bennington doesn't want it, and I don't think Bennington would even vote for it. But, I can tell you, as a member of this committee, I would not be one to be an obstacle if Shaftsbury wanted to form with another group, and go that route." Sleeman said he would be willing to change his point of view if someone was able to show him that merging all the districts of the SVSU into a single district would save significant money, but he said, "I just don't see where those savings are coming from."
O'Connor argued that the SVSU is by no means a perfect model, but pointed out that it does consolidate some services, including special education, in a way that has benefitted its member districts. By centralizing special education, he said, the SVSU was able to move paraeducators and other staff between buildings to where they are needed most.
Patterson spoke to the early findings of the North Bennington Prudential Committee, which has formed its own ad-hoc committee to study Act 46 and its implications for the village. "We'll be seeking, through whatever avenues necessary, to be full-choice, K through 12," he said.
North Bennington currently offers school choice K-6, with most of their elementary students attending the independent Village School of North Bennington, and all of the students in grades 7 through 12 attending Mount Anthony Union Middle and High Schools. He said the goal is to find another district that is hoping to be full choice, but there aren't any in the immediate geographic area.
"Merging with Sandgate is not going to quite get our numbers to where they need to be," Patterson said, referencing the 900 students minimum necessary for the state's preferred governance structure. He also noted that there were many possible combinations between North Bennington, Shaftsbury, and Arlington. He added that the district is hoping to use Act 46 as a way to get out of MAU, although he noted that in a full-choice scenario, many of the students would continue to attend the schools.
Shaftsbury Select Board Chairman Tim Scoggins asked the committee what the process was for Shaftsbury to leave the SVSU, if the town decided to go in that direction. Patterson explained that a district can vote to leave a supervisory union on its own, as long as it has somewhere to go. The potential roadblock is MAU which, according to its charter, districts can only leave if it is approved by the voters of all the member towns. When asked if Act 46 does indeed offer a way around this requirement, Patterson responded, "The question has been asked, and the answer is, maybe." Patterson also explained to Scoggins that a district can only become a choice district if it closes its public school, as North Bennington did.
Emily Umphlett, who teaches art at both Shaftsbury and Woodford Elementary Schools, asked how a potential merger would affect her situation. Prue explained that if the SVSU were to merge into a single district, there would be no more district employees; everyone would be employed by the SVSU. So, rather than being a part-time Shaftsbury employee and a part-time Woodford employee, she would be a full-time SVSU employee. Assistant superintendent Donna Leep said a merger would give the SU much more flexibility with how to utilize employees, which superintendent Jim Culkeen has repeatedly said is a positive aspect of consolidation.
The committee also asked everyone in attendance to fill out a survey regarding their thoughts on Act 46, especially their hopes for re-organization and any potential pitfalls they might see coming. The results from Shaftsbury will eventually be combined with the results from the other communities that the committee visits to create a more comprehensive view of the community's feelings on the law.