MANCHESTER >> The Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union's Big RED K-8 Merger Study Committee officially organized on Thursday, electing Jon Wilson as chair.
This represented the first meeting of the full committee, which is made up of 17 board members and community members representing nine towns: Danby, Dorset, Manchester, Langrove, Londonderry, Peru, Weston, Mt. Tabor, and Sunderland. The BRSU has a separate merger study committee representing Pawlet, Rupert, and Wells (the last of which is not currently a member of the BRSU), and another for non-operating districts Winhall, Sangate, and Stratton (the latter two of which are not currently BVSU members). There is also an active Manchester ad-hoc governance options committee. All of these committees will be working through the summer and beyond to determine the best path forward for the varied districts of the SU to come into compliance with Act 46 of 2015.
Until a chairperson was elected, the meeting was run by outgoing BRSU superintendent Dan French. The members of the committee were Mountain Towns RED board member Deb Lyneis of Weston, community member Jay Lewitt of Peru, community member Kimberly Eckhardt of Langrove, community member Dick Dale of Londonderry, community member Meg Kenny of Manchester, school board member Jessica Watson of Danby, school board chairwoman Jen Loudon of Danby, community member Ed Morrow of Manchester, school board chairman Wilson of Manchester, school board member Bill Beauregard of Mt. Tabor, community member Richard Grip of Dorset, community member Elizabeth Karet of Dorset, school board member Jim Mirenda of Dorset, school board member Jim Lind of Manchester, school board member Leslie Perra of Sunderland, community member Nancy Wolf of Sunderland, and community member Betsy Bleakie of Manchester.
Wilson, who was elected as chair of the study committee unanimously is currently the chairman of the Manchester School Board, but will soon step down from that board, as his mother, Jackie Wilson, will begin as the BRSU's interim superintendent starting in July. Before he accepted the nomination to become the chairman of the study committee, he clarified with French that there was no potential conflict of interest in him doing so.
After introductions, French spent most of the meeting describing the context of the committee's work, and the timeline they were facing moving forward. "The legislature, the policy makers have determined that the current governance structure in education is not sustainable," he said, "We can talk about why that is, but the objective of the law is to bring the state toward of sustainable model for education governance."
"Your school board started reviewing Act 46 last summer to see what would be the most likely path forward," he told the committee, "Will the law be amended? Will the law be repealed? What's the best way for our districts to come together? We have Manchester Elementary, which is a K through eight school, that district has choice nine through 12. Flood Brook is a similar configuration, as is Dorset. Those three districts come together pretty nicely, as they have the same enrollment pattern. But our other districts that are sitting around the table have different options. Sunderland operates a school K through six, and has choice seven through 12. So, if this merger goes forward, something's going to have to change. Most likely, Sunderland would end up giving up choice for seven and eight, and having choice nine through 12 with the others. It's a very similar situation with Mt. Tabor and Danby, they are already in a union district, they operate Currier Memorial School, and essentially they have the same configuration as Sunderland... That's sort of the tension around the table, not everyone here lines up."
"The task of this committee isn't going to be spending months deciding whether it's a good idea (to merge) or not, it's really fleshing out, if it is a good idea, what's the best way to do this, and maybe, at the end of doing that, you'll decide it makes no sense," he said, "There are repercussions to saying no, relative to saying yes, and those are things that will have to be evaluated. You all still might say no, but it will be based on full knowledge of what the repercussions are under Act 46."
One possible scenario that French put forward was that the BRSU could remain a supervisory union, but with fewer member districts. Under that model, Manchester, Flood Brook, Dorset, Sunderland, Danby, and Mt. Tabor would merge into a district; Pawlet, Rupert, and Wells, which have tuition agreements with New York schools, would be a second district; and Sandgate, Winhall, and Stratton would be a third. At a recent Act 46 meeting in Arlington, French suggested that Arlington would be welcome in the SU as a fourth district, the only one that would operate its own high school, but he said they would need to make that decision soon.
Regarding timeline, French said that the goal is to have a clear plan for what a merger would look like by the end of the summer, so that public forums could take place during the school year, and a vote could hopefully be had by next March. "This isn't going to be a multi-year study," he said, "you're kind of under the gun."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.