MONTPELIER >> Addison Northeast Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee obtained the blessing of the State Board of Education for its unification plan Tuesday even though a member of the local committee chose not to "hold his peace."
State board Chairman Stephan Morse referred to the study group's report as one of "exceptionally high quality." Three members of the 14-member study committee didn't agree, but the supermajority was able to approve the merger plan without their support. The dissenters took the unusual step of writing their own report to the state board.
Herb Olson, of Starksboro, cast one of the three dissenting votes. He showed up at the state board's monthly meeting in St. Johnsbury and was given an opportunity to speak after the chair of the Addison Northeast study group, Jennifer Stanley.
Olson told board members that the study committee was pressured into pursuing one governance model. "I suspect that is the best thing to do in many regions. I just don't see that is our situation and that it will support what we hope to achieve there," he said.
The study committee required a two-thirds majority vote on any issue. Stanley said this rule forced members to work through issues and determine what was important. "A lot of the concerns raised by the minority were discussed at length and were included in the articles (of agreement). I feel like they were considered in committee," she said.
One issue that separated study committee members involved local voting methods. Seventy percent of the towns that would merge vote by Australian ballot, according to Stanley. But two of the towns, Starksboro and Lincoln, vote their elementary school budget on the floor on Town Meeting Day. She said the study committee concluded they all need to vote one way in a merged district. "People are very sad about it, and we understand that," she said.
Nancy Cornell, of Starksboro, Mike Fisher, of Lincoln, and Olson wrote the minority opinion.
"Residents of towns that (vote on the floor) feel like something is being taken away from us that is really important," Olson told board members.
Stanley's presentation described how the proposed merger would work. Currently, there are five towns — Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro — operating six school districts, and all five elementary schools feed into the Mount Abraham Union High School District for grades seven through 12. The new unified union district, if it is approved by voters in all five towns, will operate five elementary schools and one secondary school with one 13-member school board.
The minority report also took issue with the idea of moving to one school board. Olson said in an interview that there really aren't any benefits to giving up local ownership of the schools for the kind of centralized system being proposed. "It doesn't bode well for school community relations," he said.
Olson said the distance causes a lack of confidence. "We are not always confident that our national folks or state folks will do the right thing. Part of that is distance. We would like to keep that community relationship strong," he said.
The authors of the minority report will lobby residents in their towns to reject the proposed merger, according to Olson.