Readsboro OKs school merger breakup

Matter heads to state Agency of Education for final decision

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READSBORO — In a 47-13 vote Monday night, residents approved an article to withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District.

Halifax, the other town that makes up the district that merged under Vermont's 2015 education law Act 46, voted 48-0 to do the same last month.

"If we say yes tonight, the matter will be taken up to the Agency of Education and the secretary of education in Montpelier to begin making a ruling," school board member Helyn Strom Henriksen told voters at Monday's special town meeting. "We're the first two towns in the state to make this move."

Henriksen said the state will need to make a decision about breaking up the district by July 1.

In both Halifax and Readsboro, residents petitioned for the articles to vote on leaving the merger. Despite the outcome, school board members anticipate the district will stick together for the next school year.

Both towns voted in favor of the Southern Valley merger in 2017. Stamford voters had rejected joining the union and the school district is now involved in the process of an interstate school merger with Clarksburg, Massachusetts.

Henriksen said school boards were told districts would lose small school grants if they did not merge, but that is not the case. They will need to apply annually to receive the funding with criteria to include school size and either geographic isolation or academic and fiscal excellence.

Math scores for students from grades 3 to 8 in Readsboro Central School were among the bottom five percentile statewide for Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing. Henriksen said the state is providing $78,000 over three years to help school staff bring up the scores.

Scott Higley of Readsboro said the scores were based on a period of time before the merger.

"I think we actually need to see what the results have been before we decide to destroy it and possibly have it go backwards, because the kids have finally gotten into a rhythm," he said. "Let's not destroy that rhythm."

Concerns had been raised in Halifax about having to raise money for renovations needed at Readsboro Central. Henriksen said Austin Design estimated the project could cost $1.6 million, but since then the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union has hired an operations manager who will be reviewing priorities.

"It's not going to cost $1.6 million and there are no time frames for when all the repairs need to be done," she said.

This school year, seventh and eighth graders from both towns were to sent to Halifax Elementary School. Administrators urged the board to make this decision based on small class sizes in Readsboro, then concerns from parents and transportation costs brought about a change of plans. Regardless of how the vote went, Readsboro seventh- and eighth-graders are expected to stay in Readsboro Central next year.

Henriksen said the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget includes hiring a principal at Readsboro Central who will work half the time as a "coach concentrating on developing teaching skills for the new staff." Principal Sandy Pentak-Cohen is supposed to split her time evenly between Halifax and Readsboro but she spends more time in Readsboro "because of our needs here," said board member Cindy Florence.

Henriksen recalled a significant amount of staff turnover starting in Readsboro when three teachers were offered a deal to retire at the same time and Peter Wright, superintendent in Windham Southwest Supervisory Union for decades, retired shortly afterwards in 2009.

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"And we experienced ... a revolving door of superintendents, new principals here at Readsboro who could not be adequately supported and mentored with new superintendents coming in," she said, counting about four or five principals who have come and gone. "And because the principals were brand new and since the superintendents were brand new, it trickled down to not being able to support brand new teachers who were here for their first or second year of teaching."

Voters expressed frustration about not knowing the full financial implications of their decision. Henriksen said the FY21 budget has not yet been approved by the board but is in its fourth draft and totals about $3.38 million for both schools.

"The unification itself hasn't changed the overall way things are happening in this building," board member Jim Irace said. "Aside from sharing a principal, things haven't really changed otherwise."

Irace said some of the philosophies and ideas from Halifax have been brought to Readsboro, and the plan going forward is to have the two principals collaborate. Henriksen noted that some staff members would work in both buildings as is the case now.

Cynthia Weiss, a parent, described herself as being "really torn on which way to vote."

"My kids go to Halifax," she said. "I'm very happy with it and I'm a Readsboro resident."

Weiss worries that finding a qualified junior high teacher will be difficult. She asked if the board would consider restructuring the school to pre-K-5.

"Those questions are all wide open," Henriksen said. "If we were to dissolve, we then could begin questioning how we would like the school to look like, what we want it to be."

Other attendees questioned why they would stay in what they described as an unhappy marriage if Halifax wants out.

Withdrawing would return more control of Readsboro Central to residents of the town, Irace said. With the board made up of half Halifax residents and half Readsboro residents, if there is a disagreement, "we only have half a say."

Florence said with no merger, families would get to choose where to send their children if Readsboro Central closes, whereas now, the students would have to go to Halifax Elementary.

Citing reports statewide, Readsboro Select Board member David Marchegiani said Act 46 was intended to save people money but so far has not.

"Being merged doesn't save us money," he said. "In fact, they went over budget."

Henriksen confirmed Southern Valley spent $113,000 more than had been budgeted this year.

"So that means we have to go out and raise and appropriate that money, and split it half and half between the two towns in addition to the budget we've got coming up," Marchegiani said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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