'Not advisable' to merge, Non-Operating committee finds

MANCHESTER — The Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union's Non-Operating Districts Merger Study Committee has voted that a merger between the districts of Sandgate, Stratton, and Winhall was not advisable, leaving the districts without a clear home.

None of the three districts operate a school, instead choosing to tuition their students to other schools in the region. While this had appeared to make the districts a good fit under the consolidation requirements of Act 46 of 2015, as all three districts share a governance structure, after working with consultant Dan French, the committee came to the conclusion at their Sept. 19 meeting that the argument to merge simply wasn't compelling enough.

"I've looked at a lot of different merger proposals," said French to the board at its Sept. 5 meeting. "This one isn't overly compelling in lots of ways. One, educationally, you're non-operating, so there's no real conversation about educational outcomes. Basically, you're trying to preserve your school choice, which is a good motivation, but there's not much to talk about relative to the educational advantages."

"Financially," he continued, "it's a crapshoot in terms of winners and losers. Basically, there's no structural changes in terms of educational spending, maybe some efficiencies through changing some cost routes, but there's no major structural changes to ed spending." He said that, if a merger was approved, the tax rate would be equalized between the three existing districts, which would would be good for some and bad for others. The three districts would only have been eligible for tax incentives if it entered into a qualified agreement, such as a three-by-one structure with Arlington, but French said his impression, based on his conversations with William Bazyk, superintendent of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union that oversees Arlington, was that something like that being approved by the Nov. 30 deadline for incentives was highly unlikely.

French has worked with a number of local study committees, including Taconic and Green Regional Education District and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.

In terms of what comes next, the Arlington School Board at its September meeting decided to reach out to Sandgate, its current partner in the BVSU, about making the case that that district continue operating as it is. Whether Sandgate is interested in that arrangement or not, the final decision for what the governance structure of the four districts will look like is now in the hands of the State Board of Education. French described how that scenario might play out.

"Essentially, if the state forces you to merge," said French, "that scenario would be firstly re-assigning you all to the same supervisory union, and then the state board would, under Act 46, have the authority to merge you down to the least number of districts practicable, under the statewide plan. Under Act 49 it then says that the state is basically going to create model merger articles of agreement. They're going to give you those and you'd have 90 days to either adopt them or something else. There's a limited window opportunity to create your own articles of agreement under the forced-merged scenario."

"The way the law is right now they can't force you to merge," he clarified. "We've chatted with folks at the (Agency of Education) about this, they don't think they have the authority now to do anything other than to perhaps force people to merge down to the least number of practicable districts in the same supervisory union. But, the existing statute, which has been on the books forever, says the state board has the authority to configure supervisory unions. So, step one would be SU configuration, then step two would be to merge down to the least number of districts practicable. My thinking is that's very feasible."

French also pointed out that there are a lot of unknowns moving forward, including new legislation between now and when the state plan in implemented that could allow the state board more power over local boards. He said it was unlikely, however, that any changes would be made that would allow the state board to take away the three districts' school choice.

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB


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