Bennington-Rutland SU to ask state not to assign them Battenkill Valley districts

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MANCHESTER — The Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union will issue a letter to the State Board of Education recommending that the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union districts not be assigned into the BRSU.

The BRSU board, at their Jan. 23 meeting, unanimously authorized their chairman, James Salsgiver, to submit a letter to the State Board of Education detailing the supervisory union's case. BRSU Superintendent Jackie Wilson said that the letter has not yet been submitted, but that they will have it to the state board by their February meeting.

The Arlington school board, representing the largest district in the BVSU, submitted a report to the state in December in which they recommended that the BVSU be allowed to remain an independently operating supervisory union. Wilson said that her office had been in contact with BVSU board chairwoman Nicol Whalen in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's vote.

"It is not in the best interests of our supervisory union or our students to take on the BVSU districts," writes Salsgiver in the draft version of the letter that was submitted to the board on Tuesday, which is available on the BRSU's website. "This decision is based on our assessment of the impact such an assignment would have on the educational, organizational and financial operation of our supervisory union."

The letter describes several years of conversations on the topic of bringing the BVSU districts, Arlington and Sandgate, into the BRSU. He notes that the Taconic and Green Regional School District's merger study report, which was written in December 2016, "specifically addressed the possibility of adding the BVSU districts to the BRSU, and included cost estimates related to such a governance change." Those cost estimates showed that a merger would create savings for the BVSU and increase costs for the BRSU.

"Notwithstanding the expected negative economic impact of an addition of the BVSU to the BRSU, the BRSU still reached out to open a dialogue with the BVSU to develop a best way forward to accommodate a reassignment," the letter continues. "That work has not yielded a workable plan, and has actually highlighted some of the concerns the BRSU has with respect to trying to accommodate a reassignment."

The chief concern listed is that too large of a percentage of the BRSU's expenses go toward governance, rather than education, and that adding the BVSU would only exacerbate that issue. "We believe that the BRSU's recent, and very relevant, experience with district consolidation puts us in a good position to gauge the amount, and the nature of, work required to successfully manage district consolidations — like a consolidation of the BVSU districts. It is not an easy or quick process, and the BVSU would bring a new wrinkle — in that we do not currently operate a school at the secondary level. (That new wrinkle does raises some concern that our estimates of the costs associated with a consolidation of BVSU districts may be understated.)

"The BRSU is quite concerned that another consolidation effort would significantly further extend the period that our supervisory union would be focusing on consolidation / governance / administrative work, distracting from our ability to focus on improvement of educational outcomes for our students. Additionally, as an addition of BVSU districts would not have the same sort of logical rationale, or expectation for advantages to our educational system, as with Mountain Towns Regional Education District and Winhall — we are concerned that this integration effort might be far tougher than our last."

"While the BRSU appreciates the difficulty of designing plans for consolidation and restructuring of the districts that have not found a way forward with Act 46/49, we believe that the addition of the BVSU districts to the BRSU would have a range of negative impacts on the BRSU - impacting our ability to focus on continuing to improve quality of education, stretching our resources to the point of impacting our ability to do a good job with the challenges we already face, and in financial terms as we strive to better manage our budgets. For these reasons, the BRSU Board does not support the assignment of the BVSU districts to the BRSU."

Wilson said that as late as the spring of 2017 there was a clear expectation that the BVSU districts would be joining the BRSU, but that Arlington had decided to move in a different direction. Regardless, she said, there were no hard feelings between the districts.

"We don't want to shut the door forever," said Wilson. "To us right now, it just seems insurmountable, to work through a merger with an unwilling partner."

BVSU Superintendent William Bazyk largely agreed with Wilson's description of events, saying that the attitude of the Arlington board gradually shifted towards favoring remaining a standing entity, rather than joining the BRSU. "As of last May or June, we'd been working all along with the idea that we would be merging with the BRSU," he said. A large part of that shift was Arlington's Act 46 study committee, which was tasked with studying a possible three-by-one merger with Sandgate, Stratton, and Winhall under the BRSU umbrella. That committee eventually submitted a report that supported petitioning the state to remain independent. Bazyk said that new members of the school board elected in March 2017 also played a role in shifting discussions away from joining the BRSU and towards the BVSU remaining as it is.

Bazyk said that his feeling is that no bridges have been burned between the two supervisory unions, and that both sides remained open to working with each other in the future. "We completely understand," he said. "They have to plan for the next two years, and it's going to be a lot of work to bring those districts together." He said that the BRSU had sought commitment from Arlington that they were moving towards a merger, so that they could include them in their planning, but that Arlington had not been able to give that commitment.

Salsgiver wrote in in a series of notes that were included with the letter that Arlington deciding not to pursue the three-by-one merger was one of the factors that led to the other three districts not pursuing a merger of their own. "The BRSU has made a real effort to engage the BVSU, but found the BVSU to have had little interest in joining in this process," he wrote. "This apparent reticence to engage on the part of BVSU is not a primary reason for our conclusion that adding the BVSU districts to the BRSU would not be in the best interest of our current districts and students. However, it does factor into the BRSU's consideration of our capacity to handle the current heavy work load at our existing districts, while also taking on the job of integrating a wholly new district with an enrollment and school operating structure different than any of our current districts."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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