Act 46 Spotlight: Mill River

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NORTH CLARENDON — In March 2016 voters in Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Tinmouth, and Wallingford — which had been part of the Rutland South Supervisory Union — approved one of the first mergers under Act 46, the Mill River Unified Union School District.

Today, about 15 months after the new district began operating, Superintendent David Younce said the merger has been "more successful than I could have ever imagined."

Prior to the merger, the RSSU had five districts and six boards to operate four elementary schools, one in each of the towns, and Mill River Union High School. The RSSU already provided its member districts with special education and transportation, in addition to other shared services, much like the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union does for its districts. The RSSU had also been working towards implementing a unified curriculum across its districts, as per state law.

Younce said that the communities previously had considerable discussions about a merger under Acts 153 and 156. While those discussions didn't end up panning out, they get the communities thinking about what a merged district could look like.

"A lot of the concerns at that time were how to handle small schools and the potential closure of small schools," he said. "But the conversation happened, the ground was laid, and a few of the board members had the mindset that it might be an appropriate thing to do."

"When 46 landed, I have to give all the credit to our board folks," Younce said. "It wasn't a crisis of belief for our folks. It wasn't an existential 'the sky is falling' situation, it was an honest discussion of 'The law is the law,' and, ultimately, the law wins. That change is going to occur, and rather than resist, and fight, and delay, our folks took an approach where they said, 'Let's figure it out, let's get on it, let's make the best of it that we can.'"

"We were a pretty cohesive supervisory union," said current board chairwoman Tammy Heffernan, who served on the study committee and was chairwoman of the Mill River Union board prior to the merger. "Some of our stuff was already centralized, it just made sense."

The RSSU Act 46 Study Committee eventually decided to form a Regional Education District, merging the five districts into one, with one eleven-member board, one budget, and one tax rate. The new district assumed all debts and assets of each of the districts. It is similar to the proposal that will go before SVSU voters on Nov. 7, although North Bennington's presence within the structure as an independent elementary school district would make it a Modified Unified Union District rather than a RED.

Like the SVSU study committee, the RSSU's articles of agreement included several protections for small schools, but went even further in making it difficult to actually close schools. Under the articles, a school in the MRUUSD can only be closed with a unanimous vote of the board and a positive vote of the residents in the town in which the school is located. As in the SVSU proposal, if a school is closed, the town would have the option to buy it back for $1.

Heffernan said that the study committee did a very good job reaching out to people in the community and educating them about the law, holding community forums, sending mailers, and explaining the law and the proposal to their neighbors.

To keep the communities involved in their schools, the study committee created an advisory committee for each town made up of the building principal, a board member from that town, and whoever else they wish to appoint. The committees meet on their own schedules, with little oversight from the greater board, but the board members make a report from their towns at every meeting. The full board meets twice a month, and the towns are represented proportionally with Clarendon and Wallingford getting four members, Shrewsbury getting two, and Tinmouth getting one.

"We put the advisory councils into the articles of agreement to let those who were concerned about local control know that they would still have a voice," Heffernan said.

In the end, citizens approved the merger overwhelmingly: 84 percent of votes across all four towns came back positive. There had been some worry that Tinmouth would vote down the proposal, as it would mean they would lose school choice for middle and high school students, although most did attend Mill River prior to the merger. Because of this, they were the only district to be named 'advisable' rather than 'necessary' in the merged proposal submitted to the state.

But even Tinmouth ended up voting heavily in favor, 234-28. The study committee did grandfather in any students from Tinmouth who were currently tuitioning into other middle and high schools.

The changes to how the central office runs have been "significant in how those folks are using their time," Younce said.

"We're no longer chasing around board meetings," he said. "There was an endless cycle of meetings — as soon as you're finished with one, you're prepping for the one the next night. Essentially, I was trying to sell the same idea to six different boards at the same time. All it takes is one board to say, 'No, we don't like that,' and your ability to move any concept forward for the whole community is stifled... When 46 landed, many said it was about the job of the superintendent. 'Oh, they don't want to go to so many meetings.' It's not about that, but it is an intangible benefit. And it's not a benefit to me, it's a benefit to our organization, because rather than constantly running from one meeting to the next, I'm able to engage with my folks on instructional leadership and focus on what's going on in the schools."

The schools now share a single, cohesive vision, Younce said. "We've got a board and an administrative group that has agreed on a shared vision that we work toward. There's no alternate pathways that anybody is trying to pursue." He said members of local boards had always been well-intentioned and had done well looking after their own individual schools, but that students benefit from having a unified vision and curriculum across the district.

Younce and Heffernan both stressed that you never want to see a situation where, upon a student's arriving in middle school, he or she finds that they are not as well-prepared as their peers, or that the teacher is easily able to identify which school the student comes from because of the gaps in their knowledge.

Heffernan is happy with how the board has operated so far. It has been more centralized and efficient, and no board members have felt inundated by additional responsibility, she said.

"It's been a positive experience," she said. "We have a great board with some really great people."

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB


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