WOODFORD — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee continued making the rounds to member towns on Monday, hearing the hopes and concerns of Woodford residents regarding how the SU should handle complying with the controversial education law.
"Act 46 is a law that was enacted by the legislature last year that is making the school districts in Vermont look at consolidation," said committee chairwoman Jackie Prue to the small audience that had gathered at the town hall. As at the previous public forums, SVSU superintendent Jim Culkeen explained the various consolidation structures that the law provides for, including the preferred model, which involves a single pre-K through 12 district consisting of at least 900 students. In the case of the SVSU, that would mean eliminating all local school boards and replacing them with a single board that would manage all of the schools. Many board members have been hesitant to give up local control, and North Bennington would not seem to fit in with that model, as they desire to retain school choice pre-K through 6, at least.
Woodford's representative on the committee, Dick Franz, attempted to explain the history of consolidation discussions in the SVSU. "We took a look at things in 1992 with the Century Fund study," he said, "The LEAD Think Tank Reform study was in 1993. In 1995 there was a unified study, where we thought we were going to consolidate a lot of the services that we have since consolidated. In 1996 there was a vote, 'Should seven districts of the SVSU vote to form one unified district?' and it went down in flames. In 2004 there was an SVSU governance study. In 2006, a student redistribution study. 2011 was the RED (Regional Education District) study, and here we are in 2015. So, all of these appear to be state-supported, and I guess my fear is that we have to take some kind of action to describe what we want to look like, or the state will do it for us."
Prue expressed to the Woodford residents that, regardless of what the consolidation ends up looking like, there is no intention from any members of the committee to close any schools. She said that four of her grandchildren attended Woodford Elementary, and had a great experience there, and that she understands better than most how important the school is for their community. "I do know that you have a very nice school down here, it is very family-oriented, it's the center of this community," she said, "I hope that, if we do decide to consolidate, that there could be some language written in that we would not be closing schools. That's what I think everybody's worried about. I know Shaftsbury doesn't want their school closed, Pownal definitely doesn't want their school closed, North Bennington doesn't want their's, you don't want yours, and we can't close a school in Bennington." She did say that it would be nice to be able to move students between schools when space is available, something that is mostly impossible now.
The committee has already visited Shaftsbury and Pownal, and will visit North Bennington and Bennington in the coming months. A clock is ticking, however, said Culkeen, who noted that for the preferred and side-by-side models described in the law, and to get the tax credits associated with adopting those models, a proposal would need to go before the voters before July of 2017.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.