BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee met with a consultant from the state for the first time, and began to strategize the best ways to come into compliance with the 2015 education law.
Steve Sanborn, former Chittenden County superintendent and member of the Vermont School Board Association, was hired last month to be the SU's Act 46 consultant. Sanborn has also been acting as a consultant for the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, the SVSU's northern neighbor, and six other districts across the state.
"Certainly, Act 46 is not the first effort at unification in Vermont," he said, to give context to those unfamiliar with the state's history of education reform, "There has been history before that. Chapter 11 of Title 16 I believe started in the early '50s, when they started considering union high schools. As you go through unification, a lot of the legal pieces of unification will come from Chapter 11. Then they went to Act 153, then they moved on to 156, and then to Act 46. I think the difference in Act 46 is that it has a little more teeth in it. It's more of a carrot, and a possible stick, than just incentives to unify.
There was some confusion at the beginning of the meeting (which was the first to feature an expanded study committee, with community members alongside board members representing their respective towns), over whether the committee was an exploratory committee, or an official study committee. "A study committee has legal representation from each one of the communities, and the representation on that is determined by pupil population in each one of the school districts. An exploratory committee is a group that is appointed by the supervisory union to just go out and explore some of the options that may be available. The final piece of an exploratory committee is for the committee to write a report with their beliefs, from exploring their options, and send that back to each one of the school boards."
"The role of the study committee," he continued, "is, one, to determine, through your discussions, whether you believe there should be unification, and that's something that as a committee you will vote on, and two, to create articles of agreement on what would define a new unified union, or modified unified union, whatever model you folks come up with."
Sanborn said that, based on his review of the minutes of all of the individual boards, that the boards of the SVSU had formed a study committee, rather than an exploratory committee. Pownal representative Jim O'Connor argued that his understanding, and that of other board members, had been the opposite. Sanborn acknowledged that he was not a lawyer, but that the districts had each voted to form a study committee, rather than having the SVSU appoint one.
"In saying that," explained Sanborn, "forming a study committee does not mean that each community needs to be involved in unification. We'll start talking about that, whether communities need to be necessary or advisable. You, as a committee, can define what each community should be. If you don't feel your community wants to unify, you can be put as 'advisable' in that vote, and if your community votes no, then the other communities can unify."
Each community then took time to caucus on their own, and discuss what their goals were entering into the discussions. Bruce Lierman, of North Bennington, said his community was interested in becoming a K-12 non-operating district. "We feel there is already a community emphasis on choice for our parents, which we have already started with our K-6 independent academy," he said, adding that, should they decide to become K-12 non-operating, there are many more merger options available to them outside the SVSU.
O'Connor said Pownal would prefer to see the committee pursue an alternate structure where the SVSU remains configured as it currently is. He said if that wasn't possible, and if Pownal were to surrender its sovereignty by merging into a supervisory district, that that district board be made up of two members from each community, regardless of population.
Jessica Smith, of Shaftsbury, said the desires of her town remain unclear, and that she would like to engage more with the people there, in order to better understand their positions.
Dick Frantz, of Woodford, expressed a fear that the state was targeting to, at some point, eliminate small schools. He said the people of Woodford like their school, and do not want to send their K-6 children into Bennington to be educated. However, he said he felt that the school's best protection against closure is to be a part of a larger group, such as Mount Anthony Union, which he felt could be expanded to comply with Act 46.
Finally, Donald Campbell of Bennington said his town's goal was to form a modified unified union district (MUUD), which would replace the SVSU and would have some form of proportional voting on a single board, which he acknowledged would be the "sticky wicket" in discussions. If that were not possible by March of next year, he said, the district could seek to dissolve the SVSU and become its own K-12 district by absorbing Woodford and MAU. He said other towns would be welcome to join that as well.
The committee will next meet on Aug. 16, at 6 p.m., at a location to be determined, to continue discussing how to bridge the gaps between the districts.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.