MANCHESTER — Two Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committees have released answers to "Frequently Asked Questions" to educate voters and encourage public engagement in the months leading up to a potential community vote.
The Northshire Merger Study Committee, which is comprised of the school districts of Danby, Dorset, Manchester, Mountain Towns RED, Mt. Tabor, and Sunderland, and the Pawlet-Rupert-Wells Merger Study Committee both released the documents earlier this month. The Northshire committee has also launched a website and a Facebook page intended to keep the public up to date with how the discussions on how to best comply with 2015's controversial education bill are progressing.
In their FAQ document, among other information on the background of the law, the BRSU, and the committee, the Northshire committee laid out their plans moving forward. Through September and October, the committee will hold public forums to get input on their plan before submitting it to the state Agency of Education for review in November. Assuming the AOE does not recommend drastic changes, the board will then hold informational forums to educate the public about the implications and benefits of the proposed merger. Each town will vote on the proposal in February or March. Should the merger be approved, the new district would become operational in July of 2019.
The committee also outlines what that merger possibility could look like. The two options it is consider are a supervisory district or a regional education district (RED). An SD is, according to the committee, "a governance structure that is made up of one PK-12 school district that has the responsibility of providing for the education of all students that live within its defined geographic boundaries. A supervisory district would have one teachers' contract, one governing board, one set of policies to create goals, one budget and eventually one tax rate. A supervisory district will also be large enough to have one superintendent and one governing board. A supervisory district is also responsible for meeting all public assurance obligations (ex: audits) for the entire district."
A RED, like the SD, would have one school board, one budget, and eventually one tax rate. However, unlike the SD, the RED would operate alongside other districts in a supervisory union. If this RED were to be formed, potential partners include the non-operating districts of the BRSU, Rupert-Pawlet-Wells, and Arlington.
The Northshire committee also attempts to answer two of the most pressing questions many parents have — how will a merger affect school choice and does a merger mean that schools will close?
"Merging into a unified district will impact school choice for some of our districts," wrote the committee, "It is legally required that all students in a school district have the same school choice option. Danby, Mt Tabor, and Sunderland currently have 7-12 choice while Manchester, Dorset, and the Mountain Towns RED all have 9-12 choice. The most likely solution to reconciling these two different choice options is for Danby, Mt. Tabor, and Sunderland to change to 9-12 choice. There are two primary reasons why this solution is most likely: Dorset, Manchester, and the Mountain Towns RED districts operate schools at this grade level (it is illegal for a district to operate a school and offer choice for the same grade level); the students in 7 and 8 for these districts largely attend their district schools. Since the proposed unified district would have 9-12 choice, the voters of Sunderland, Mt. Tabor and Danby would need to approve changing from 7-12 choice to 9-12 choice to be apart of the new district. The merger committee is currently discussing grandfathering options."
In terms of closing schools, the committee reached a verbal agreement early in the process that no schools would be closed in the first four years, and any school closings after that would have to be approved by three-quarters of the new district board. Other requirements are also being considered.
According to the Pawlet-Rupert-Wells study committee's FAQ document, unlike with the Northshire committee, the three districts are not large enough to form a supervisory district of their own, and will have to join another supervisory union, be that the BRSU or the Rutland Southwest Supervisory Union. At a recent meeting, the board held a close vote to focus on studying a school choice model, rather than maintaining the current system, which allows the districts to designate New York high schools for their 7-12 students. Students will still be able to attend Salem and Granville High Schools in New York if the districts decide to merge and become a 7-12 choice district, and it will allow other districts with 7-12 choice, such as Middletown Springs, to join the district. However, it could lead to an increase in costs.
"School choice would be more expensive than designation since the tuition rates in Vermont are higher than those in New York," the committee writes, "Our basic model indicates school choice would increase the merged tax rate by at least 10 cents... This translates to an additional $150 a year on a home valued at $150,000. O ur model was based on the assumption students would continue to attend their current schools. If school choice is provided, however, we can expect parents and students to choose to attend schools other than their current designated schools which would add additional cost."
Should Pawlet, Rupert, and Wells not come to an agreement on an acceptable merger, the document reads, "One of two things will happen: 1) these districts will find some other way to merge including merging with other districts, or 2) the state will determine the best governance configuration of the districts by 2019. Under Act 46, these districts are too small to justify the current governance configuration. Doing nothing is not going to be an option."
The Northshire Merger Study Committee will next meet on Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at Manchester Elementary-Middle School, and then on Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. at Flood Brook School. The Pawlet-Rupert-Wells committee met on Monday, and will next meet on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Mettawee Community School.
— Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.