Plan would merge 4 elementary districts

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However they feel about it, it's not a surprise.

That's how those involved in the years-long wrangling over compliance with the state's Act 46 described their reaction to a proposed plan for school governance issued last week that would merge four area elementary school districts.

The plan, known as the Section 10 report, provides recommendations for governing school districts and groups of districts in the state that have not merged. The report was released June 1 by Acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey.

The report is essentially a recommendation to the state Board of Education, which has the authority to put the recommended mergers into effect.

For the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, Bouchey recommended that the Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford districts be merged into a grade pre-K to six union elementary school district.

The existing Mount Anthony Union School District, for grades 7 to 12, and the North Bennington School District would not be merged.

"I think it's better than having the whole thing made into one large [district]," said Nelson Brownell, who is the chairman of the SVSU Board and also serves on the MAU Board. "I'm more happy with this than I would have been if it was a total merger."

With a merger that wouldn't affect the middle and high school grades, there would be "a lot less stir, or things in the mix," he said.

Act 46, enacted in May 2015, identified the preferred model of governance for the state's schools as a unified union school district responsible for pre-K through grade 12 education.

This could be accomplished by operating all grades, by operating pre-K to sixth grade or pre-K to eighth grade and tuitioning the remaining grades or by tuitioning all grades.

Tuitioning refers to school districts that pay to send their students to another district or private schools, rather than operating its own program.

The act created three phases of voluntary school district merger and one non-voluntary phase, to be mandated by the state Board of Education and implemented July 1, 2019.

Many districts took advantage of the earlier voluntary merger phases, in which legislative programs offered tax rate reductions and transitional assistance for school district mergers.

The initial incentives provided an 8 cent tax break per $100 in appraised property value to towns for school district mergers; the amount drops by two cents a year over a four-year period.

On Nov. 7, 2017, SVSU voters narrowly defeated a proposal that would bring schools into compliance with Act 46 through providing for a merger of districts of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford into a single pre-K to 12th grade district with one board and one budget.

The proposal would have allowed the districts to take advantage of incentives for mergers offered under Act 46.

It passed by almost two-thirds in Shaftsbury, and passed by three-fourths in Bennington, but was defeated by four votes in Pownal and two votes in Woodford. The proposal required three out of four towns in favor to pass.

Cindy Brownell, chairwoman of the Pownal School Board and wife of Nelson Brownell, was against the merger proposal defeated last November.

"I felt that there's so much to do, so many policies and different committees — one board would not be able to handle it," she said. "I've been on the board long enough to know that there's a lot of work involved." The secretary's recommendation, she said, is much more palatable. If the town can't be left alone, the recommendation represents second-best option, she added.

Brownell said she does not believe the state board will go against the recommendation. "They want to see something happen," she said.

Even now, she said, most of the districts in the Southern portion of the state are already sharing services. "In my estimation, we're already consolidating a lot of things," including teacher contracts and purchasing orders, for example. The SVSU districts also share special education services, transportation, technology services, and more.

"When someone has an idea like that of consolidating, in my book — it just doesn't fit everybody," she said.

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The process leading to the November 2017 vote lasted over two years and involved three study committees, dozens of public meetings and many proposals on how best to meet the requirements of Act 46.

Jeffrey Leake, a member of the Shaftsbury school board, said he supported the November 2017 proposal. More than anything, he said, it provided for fair structure of the school board that would govern the one district, ensuring the smaller towns had a voice.

The proposal also had safeguards for school closures, providing a five-year buffer where schools could not be closed. "[That] was important to Woodford," Leake said. "I respect that."

But the Section 10 report's recommendation also makes sense.

"When you think about one board managing everything — it's a lot for one board to handle," Leake said. "I think having the elementary [districts with] a stand-alone board is a good thing."

If the state board of education decides to implement the recommendation, the issue of where to house 6th-graders might come up, he said.

"All the schools aren't alike," he said.

Shaftsbury and Pownal Elementary School holds kindergarten to sixth grade, while Bennington and Woodford hold kindergarten through fifth grade.

Consolidating the elementary school districts and not the entire union offers a more "gentle approach," he said.

"For years, I pushed for [consolidation], but I started listening to people in the outlying districts that really wanted to stay by themselves, and I can see their point too," said Jackie Prue, a member of the Bennington School Board.

As far as the recommendation for the SVSU, "It is what it is," she said. "I don't necessarily agree with it, but I expected it," she said.

The districts that make up the SVSU already have largely consolidating with things like busing contracts and food service, she said. "The state is constantly mandating this, and this is supposed to be to save money," she said.

But, Prue said, there won't be any money saved — the SVSU will still need the same buildings, the same administrators and the same amount of staff.

"I just hope that we can all come to the table and get along," she said.

Thus far, a total of 157 districts have come together to create 39 unified districts; as of June 1, nearly 68 percent of students are in merged districts or in districts the legislature deems of sustainable scale, according to the Section 10 report.

The state general assembly passed Act 46 partially in response to a change in the state's demographics, as the average daily membership in grades kindergarten through 12 experienced a 24 percent decline from Fiscal Year 1997 to FY 2018, according to the report.

School districts have also experienced percentages of students with severe emotional needs, and the proportion of students from families in crisis due to opiate addiction, loss of employment and other factors has also increased.

Act 46 directs how mergers are to be approached through the stated goal of moving the state towards more sustainable and equitable models of education governance through mergers.

Out of the 43 districts and groups of districts discussed in the report, merger is recommended for 18, no action for three, and no merger for 22.

Out of those 22 districts, merger was not recommended for 12 of them because it is "not practicable" at this time and would not advance the goals of Act 46; in the other 10, it is not legally possible to merge.

The state Board of Education plans to hold public meetings about the Sec. 10 recommendations this fall, but dates have not been set.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BEN_pleboeuf and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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