BENNINGTON — The merging of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union into the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is going ahead after the schools were denied another delay in the process.
In a letter dated Sept. 10, Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said that the merger had already been delayed once because of the merging of the elementary school districts, but that despite the school districts dealing with COVID-19, there can be no more delays.
The BVSU — which consists of the Arlington school district and the Sandgate school district — will be absorbed into the SVSU as of July 1, 2021.
This is the third time the school districts have contacted the state regarding the merger. The first time came nearly two years ago after the state Board of Education voted on the merger. The districts asked for another delay in February, according to French's letter, based on a paper French wrote that concluded, "a single district would be the best structure to meet our education policy goals of quality and equity."
The districts believed switching supervisory unions would be an unnecessary step, but French denied the request.
The third and final request came as a result of the pandemic.
"Recently, the districts have articulated a new rationale to delay the assignment of these districts based on the COVID-19 emergency," French wrote. "They argue that the emergency has required them to focus their collective organizational capacities on the complex work of reopening their school during the pandemic."
French said he is sympathetic, but that there has been a "pattern of delay."
SVSU superintendent James Culkeen discussed the denial at Wednesday's SVSU board meeting over Zoom.
"We were looking at another delay because of COVID, but he said there can't be any more delays," Culkeen said.
In a letter dated Sept. 23, from John Carroll, the chairman of the Vermont Board of Education, to members of the Arlington school board, Bill Bazyk, the BVSU superintendent, Culkeen and Dick Frantz, the SVSU board chairman, said that the state board concurs with French.
"The board has directed me, as its chair, to affirm its position, conveyed to you in my letter of [April 22] that the board, 'does not intend to reconsider the substance of the November 2018 order nor to extend the 2021 deadline.'"
At a special SVSU meeting on Wednesday, members of the Arlington school board and select board were in attendance.
"We're ready to follow with the mandate," said Matthew Bykowski, a member of the Arlington School District Board. "We know it's a stretch for SVSU with [COVID], but we recognize we need to get it done and I'm looking forward to seeing how your organization works."
Also in his letter, French said that with the challenging financial implications of the pandemic, it's "...important to seek efficiencies in education spending, particularly in areas of administrative costs, which might not be directly related to the provision of student services."
Many of these plans are either starting or in the process, including personnel, payroll, finance, human resources and budget planning, to avoid duplicity. Updates from Human Resources director Nick Gault and Finance and Operations director Renee Gordon revealed that they were working on matching up with the BVSU for those items.
The policy committee will also have to meet to mesh each district's policies into one document.
Culkeen also pointed out that teacher and staff contracts are different between the two districts, and that there will have to be a negotiation for each separately. He discussed pulling special education into the supervisory union as well, but that it wouldn't be something that would happen quickly because of the separate contracts.
"It's not an overnight merger, we'd want to keep [special education] as separate as possible," Culkeen said. "If we shared staff, that would be different."
There may still be a legal challenge to the merger. The Arlington School District Board unanimously voted on Sept. 15 to have two members meet with the board's attorney to discuss legal options after getting word from the Vermont Board of Education there would be no extension of the timeline.