Key support forming for Stamford-Clarksburg school district

STAMFORD — The idea of an interstate school district linking Stamford and Clarksburg, Mass., has picked up key backing in the Legislature.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-P-Chittenden, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, is among those now supporting the proposal, after he met with officials and residents of the two towns on Dec. 8.

Baruth expressed skepticism in June because of the complex, lengthy approval process involved — requiring votes in both state legislatures and in Congress. But he said this week he was won over during the meeting.

"I am fully onboard with their dream for this district," he said. "They made a very compelling case."

Traveling to Stamford and then driving with the group to the Clarksburg school, about three miles south on Route 8, was in itself a powerful argument, Baruth said.

"The geography will convince you," he said, adding that if the goal of Vermont's Act 46 is to consolidate schools to promote greater efficiency, "this makes more sense than trying to govern across mountains."

Town residents argue that all other consolidation options available would leave Stamford as the most isolated community in the union.

The town earlier this year participated in an Act 46 merger study that led to a multi-town vote May 31 on a plan to consolidate with Readsboro, Halifax and the Twin Valley district (Wilmington and Whitingham).

The other towns approved the plan, but Stamford made a definitive statement by overwhelmingly rejecting the merger on a vote of 173 to 6.

Even prior to that vote, the idea of forming a district with Clarksburg — an idea often talked about locally because of the proximity and many inter-town personal and business connections — was being offered as a reason to oppose the Act 46 plan.

Following that vote, the Stamford School Board appointed a study committee to explore a cross-border consolidation in conjunction with representatives from Clarksburg. Kimberly Morandi-Roberts, among those working to move the proposal forward, said local state representatives and officials from the Stamford School, the town of Clarksburg, the North Berkshire School Union, which includes the Clarksburg school, and other study group members met here with Baruth.

"We're pretty appreciative of Senator Baruth traveling from Burlington over Route 9 and Route 8 to the Massachusetts border to meet with our interstate group in Stamford," said Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, whose legislative district includes Stamford. "An interstate district is a really unique situation and takes a lot of work and time to coordinate."

She has filed a short form bill in the Legislature relating to the proposal, which acts as a placeholder and could allow the concept to be taken up in the next session.

Sibilia and Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, have been active supporters of the effort and attended the Dec. 8 meeting.

"The Senate is going to advocate for legislative approval of an interstate school district," Campion said. "Congressional approval will also be needed, but this is a solid first step."

"Both the representatives from Mass. and Stamford continue to feel very positive about the possibility of the interstate merger," Morandi-Roberts said. "Senator Baruth's support was crucial because of his role as chair of Senate Education, as well as his vast experience in the Vermont legislation."

Campion's colleague, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Massachusetts Rep. John Barrett III, whose district includes Clarksburg, also voiced support this week.

"I fully support what the two communities are trying to do," Barrett said Thursday. "But the question is selling it to the [Mass.] Education Department and the Legislature in Boston."

He said he has spoken with North Berkshire School Union Superintendent Jon Lev and Clarksburg officials about the proposal.

Key to the idea in Massachusetts, Barrett said, will be developing a detailed plan for how the consolidated district would operate. He said Clarksburg has requested state funding for a feasibility study for that purpose.

"I am familiar with the proposal," Sears said. "I will support what the majority of Stamford residents want, and at this point it appears they would like to pursue this option. There is still a long way to go, and it will ultimately take an act of Congress before it could be effective."

However, he noted that there are existing interstate districts involving Vermont and New Hampshire towns, "so it can be done, and there is a road map."

Morandi-Roberts said local officials or volunteers also have been in contact with Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, whose Senate district includes Clarksburg, and the offices of U.S. representatives in both states.

She added that local supporters are grateful for the efforts of area state lawmakers.

"Working with each of these people has been necessary, and highly educational," she said. "We are fortunate to be represented by such dedicated individuals."

Interstate compacts

The process would include development of an interstate compact to allow such districts, plus approval by both state legislatures and ultimately Congress.

That full process was completed with New Hampshire, resulting in the Rivendell and the Dresden interstate districts. The Vermont Legislature approved an interstate compact with New York in the 1970s but that state's legislature did not approve it and no districts were formed.

No compact agreements have ever been reached involving Massachusetts and Vermont.

As part of the Act 46 process, Stamford — having rejected the in-state merger proposal — must submit an alternative governance plan to the Department of Education by the end of the month.

Morandi-Roberts said that report will include an interstate district with Clarksburg.

According to enrollment statistics, Clarksburg Elementary has about 173 students, while Stamford Elementary has about 76. Both are kindergarten through 8th grade schools, with high school students tuitioned to schools Massachusetts and Vermont.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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