Windham Southeast merger moves ahead

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BRATTLEBORO — Voters finally may get a chance to consider a four-town school district merger in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

The union's Act 46 study committee has approved a proposal for combining districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney into one new district governed by one board. If the State Board of Education also OKs the plan, the matter will go to voters in those four towns Nov. 7.

The outcome is far from certain, as Windham Southeast's merger talks have been protracted and difficult. But officials are planning a series of community meetings and other outreach efforts in advance of the vote.

Alice Laughlin, the study committee's chairwoman, said she wants residents to "really understand why the merger is worthy of their consideration."

Laughlin and Windham Southeast administrators have presided over a process that began in fall 2015, not long after the Legislature's approval of Act 46.

The statute pushes for creation of larger, consolidated school districts statewide in an effort to reduce costs and improve educational opportunities. But Windham Southeast has had a hard time coming up with a plan that satisfies the goals of Act 46 and the desires of local residents.

Some of the opposition has been ideological. There is concern that school mergers won't be beneficial, and some don't like the idea of giving up each town's direct control over school properties and education budgets.

There also has been structural strife. Vernon officials pulled out of Windham Southeast's merger talks due to a desire to preserve their school-choice setup, and Vernon residents eventually voted to leave the regional school union so the town can pursue its own Act 46 plan.

Earlier this year, the study committee put out a public call for the state's assistance in resolving Act 46 issues. State experts responded with detailed information about the law but declined to tell the committee which options to pursue.

All of that led to a Thursday night meeting in Brattleboro, where the study committee put the finishing touches on a proposal to create the Windham Southeast Unified District.

The plan does not call for immediate closure of any schools. But it does away with each town's individual school board in favor of a new nine-member board that would oversee one budget.

A unified district, the study committee's report says, "will result in one mission and vision benefiting all our students."

Merger proponents say the larger district would allow more staff flexibility as well as the ability to expand educational, after-school and summer programs.

"Each school has a unique culture," the study committee's report says. "The expectation would be to maintain that culture and have the opportunity for additional programming."

There also are financial reasons to form a consolidated district.

In addition to tax incentives offered by the state for merging districts, proponents also say the merger will promote "more efficient financial programming and delivery of financial services."

Initial cost savings are estimated at more than $100,000 and could grow, officials say.

But some aren't buying it. Dummerston resident Jody Normandeau, a critic of the merger process, told committee members on Thursday that the local Act 46 plan is "not palatable."

Normandeau is concerned, for instance, about losing her town's vote on a school budget. In the combined district, the towns would vote collectively on a budget via Australian ballot.

She also objects to giving up Dummerston's school board, though the merger plan calls for creation of "school-based leadership councils" to advise the four-town board.

Sacrificing local control, Normandeau argued, would bring debatable gains. Claims of financial savings and educational improvement are "pure speculation," she said.

"We don't know. We won't know until we get into it," Normandeau told the committee. "And once we get into it, we can't get out."

Nevertheless, the eight study committee members who were present voted unanimously to send the merger plan to the state. They expect the Board of Education to review the documents at a meeting in September, though a specific date has not yet been announced for that session.

If the state board approves Windham Southeast's plan, the merger process would kick into high gear.

In addition to voting on the merger Nov. 7, residents in the four towns also would be electing members of the new, combined school board. Anyone interested in running for those positions will be able to pick up petitions starting Sept. 21, but those petitions have to be returned by Oct. 2.

"It's a very short turnaround," said Lyle Holiday, Windham Southeast superintendent.

The study committee also has scheduled informational meetings in each of the affected towns: Oct. 30 in Dummerston, Nov. 1 in Brattleboro, Nov. 2 in Putney and Nov. 6 in Guilford. Each meeting will start at 6 p.m. and will be held at the town's school, though the location for the Brattleboro meeting has not yet been determined.

Each town's vote has been deemed "necessary" to the merger plan. That means that, if one town votes against it, the merger cannot happen.

That would initiate a scramble to come up with a new Act 46 plan to meet state deadlines. Jill Stahl Tyler, who chairs the Brattleboro Town School Board, said her board already has decided to look into "any other alternative (merger) structures that anyone else is thinking of."

That's not a lack of confidence in the current plan, she said. Rather, it's a matter of "being prudent in case it doesn't go through."

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