Pawlet, Rupert votes to merge

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MANCHESTER — Residents of Pawlet and Rupert voted to merge school districts in a Nov. 21 vote mandated by State Act 46, paving the way for the creation of the new Union School District #47, also known as the Mettawee School District.

The vote supported the revised Merger Study Report and Articles of Agreement put forth by the towns' Merger Study Committee, which was approved by the State Board of Education on Oct 18.

"I'm very happy that both communities voted in the same direction; I think that was very important," said Superintendent Jackie Wilson of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union (BRSU). "This was a divisive issue, so now that we have a path forward I hope that we can work together in the interest of the students."

Pawlet residents voted 259 to 201 in favor of the merger, and elected four members of the new school board.

Merger Study Committee member Scott McChesney was elected to a one year term on the board, defeating opponent Richard Cleveland by four votes. Julie Mach was elected to a two-year term with 232 votes, over Timothy Hughes-Muse who received 209 votes. Two school board members were elected for three year-terms, with Susan Ceglowski (272 votes) and Diane Mach (262 votes) defeating Cori Rail (106 votes).

The margin was even closer in the town of Rupert, which approved the merger by only eight votes (150 to 142). Two new school board members were elected by voters in Rupert, with Michael Krauss (141 votes) defeating Eugene Ceglowski (135 votes) for a one year term. While Ceglowski served on the prior Merger Study Committee, Krauss was an active member of the opposition group "Families for Education in Vermont," which rallied approximately 250 citizens of Pawlet and Rupert in support of a merger without designation.

Jane Lourie will represent Rupert for a two year term on the new school board after receiving 155 votes, defeating opponent Jacqueline Haft by 35 votes.

According to Wilson, the most pressing task for the new school board will be getting organized in time to "go live" on July 1, 2018. Because the new Mettawee School District will now be "joined at the hip" with the Taconic and Green Regional School District, approved by voters in nine towns (Manchester, Dorset, Londonderry, Danby, Sunderland, Mount Tabor, Landgrove, Peru, and Weston) last March, both districts will need to begin operations on the same date.

"The Taconic and Green Regional School District had a whole year to get ready for that, so the Mettawee School District is going to have a very, very short window to get their budget through and put operational policies in place," Wilson said. "It won't be too difficult, as they're still only going to operate the Mettawee Community School. It's just a matter of adopting policies."

Still, Wilson says there are a number of delays anticipated in the process.

"The votes need to be finalized by the Secretary of State, which takes 31 days from the original vote date," she explained. "Once that happens we will be working with the Secretary of Education, who will actually convene the new school board for the first time."

Because that first meeting will be a formal meeting of the electorate, says Wilson, it will have to be warned as well — which will take another 30 days.

"It probably won't be until late January or early February until she can form that entity," Wilson said. "Our budgets are usually finished by mid-January, so we need to figure out how to get a budget before the voters for review and approval if that entity wouldn't exist yet."

Beyond operational roadblocks, the merger marks a departure from past educational practices in Pawlet and Rupert. Going forward, students that choose to attend a school other than the formerly designated New York schools in Salem and Granville will receive the state average tuition to attend schools like Burr and Burton Academy and Long Trail School.

While residents will now have more freedom in terms of school choice, that freedom will not come without a cost.

"This is a big change financially for a lot of families," Wilson said. "We were clear that we would fully anticipate an increase in taxes as a result of moving to the practice of paying tuition over designation. That was well vetted; people understand that they will see an increase in taxes."

Though Wilson says that a specific amount for that increase cannot yet be determined, provisions in Act 46 should prevent an undue tax burden.

"We won't have a true handle on that until the budget process begins, but they will receive incentives [because they voted to merge prior to the Nov. 30 deadline set by the State]," Wilson said. "There's a level of protection for how much those taxes can increase -- they cannot increase or decrease more than five percent under the merger."

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.

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