Vernon prepares for vote on leaving Brattleboro Union High School district

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VERNON >> Residents are getting ready to vote on leaving Brattleboro Union High School District #6.

"It's just a formality," School Board Chairman Mike Hebert said at a forum on Monday.

The question will be posed on ballots in Vernon on Aug. 9. If approved, the other member towns within the BUHS district will vote in November. Hebert said he could not see the other towns "not honoring our request."

The Vernon School Board wants to keep school choice for students leaving the elementary school in sixth grade. The district is the only one in Vermont that is part of a union high school district but also offers school choice.

Voting to join a merged district with schools that do not have school choice likely would cause Vernon to lose school choice, according to Hebert.

Historically, Hebert said, Vernon has sent about 75 to 80 percent of its students to Brattleboro. He did not see any reason that would change if the district decided to contract with the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

The hope is to leave the union high school district and allow other members of the WSESU to vote on a merger.

By withdrawing from merger talks, Hebert said Vernon "kind of created a log jam for everyone else."

The merger on the table involves compliance around Act 46. The state law mandates district consolidation. Tax breaks associated with merging sooner are now reduced due to a delay in voting on it.

Currently, a cost-per-student calculation goes to member towns of the union high school district. WSESU Business Administrator Frank Rucker said the other option will involve a tuition rate.

"On the surface, it's not substantially different," he said. "The significant difference going forward is what kind of a position you are in to deal with student enrollment."

Superintendent Ron Stahley told forum attendees the Vernon School Board weighed program opportunities outlined in a report by the WSESU Act 46 Committee against school choice and picked the latter. But in the future, he said, Vernon might find it is no longer financially feasible to remain on its own.

Leaving merger discussions also had to do with concerns about not having an "off ramp" in the case that Vernon did not want to participate, said Hebert.

"The issue is things are in flux. We don't know what the State Board of Education or Agency (of Education) are going to do. It's our hope to contract for services we have now and to continue to be able to operate under those conditions," he said. "If we are voted out then we would seek approval from the AOE to have a contractual agreement with the unified district."

WSESU members — Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney — could be joining together as one district. That too will require a vote. The Act 46 Committee is currently arranging articles of agreement to be approved by the state. Then the document will come before voters. All towns within the proposed district must approve in order for the merger to occur.

The "avenue" to join the unified district, Hebert said, would still be there if Vernon decides being on its own is not working out economically or educationally once it breaks free from the BUHS district.

"Then they'd have to vote to let us in," he said.

Local control is another issue at play.

One of Hebert's concerns is how the governance structure could be set up. The members of a unified district board might be "at large," meaning from all the communities within the district rather than designated representatives from each town. A leadership council would offer input to the board.

Hebert also mentioned the "high level quality and maintenance" of Vernon's elementary school. He said he feels that Vernon has met the goals of Act 46. The law is aimed at educational equity for students and sustainable governance.


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