Stamford Elementary still pursuing merger with Mass. district


STAMFORD — Stamford hasn't given up its quest for a merged school district across state lines with the Clarksburg (Mass.) Elementary School.

However, officials from both towns say the lengthy and difficult process of gaining the necessary approvals was pushed off track when Clarksburg's school reconstruction project was defeated by a single vote on Sept. 27.

A revote for the $19 million project is scheduled for Nov. 18. A two-thirds majority is required.

The cross-state merger effort also is unfolding against the backdrop of approaching deadlines under Vermont's Act 46, which offers tax incentives to encourage school districts to consolidate and includes the prospect of the State Board of Education eventually assigning those districts that haven't merged. Stamford residents made a strong statement of their preferences in the spring, voting almost unanimously in May to reject a proposed Act 46 merger involving the towns of Readsboro and Halifax, along with the Twin Valley School District (Wilmington and Whitingham).

While the other districts approved the plan, Stamford rejected it on a vote of 173 to 6.

"I know that Stamford is serious," said Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, whose House district includes the town.

To assist the merger effort, she has introduced a short form bill relating to the proposal, which acts as a placeholder and could allow the concept to be taken up in the next legislative session.

But Sibilia, who has discussed the idea with officials and residents on both sides of the border, also noted the long road Stamford would have to follow to combine with Clarksburg. That task involves the "significant" hurdles of approval by both state legislatures and Congress.

Vermont currently has a compact with New Hampshire that allows districts to apply for such an interstate district, but no agreements are in place for Massachusetts or New York.

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, also has discussed the proposal with Sibilia and others.

"If this solution works for Stamford, I support it," he said this week. "The bottom line of Act 46 is to make changes that will improve opportunities and outcomes for Vermont students. There are some areas of the state where we will see a lot of change, other areas little to none."

"We are kind of stuck in limbo right now," said Jonathan Lev, superintendent of the North Berkshire School Union, which includes the Clarksburg district and three other Massachusetts towns.

He said school officials and interested parents from both states have met to discuss the idea, but the overriding priority in Clarksburg now is getting the school project approved.

"I know Clarksburg is very interested in this, and I know Stamford is," Lev said. But he said that without an approved renovation project for Clarksburg Elementary, no concrete details of a merger could be worked out between the communities.

Clarksburg school has about 175 students in Grades kindergarten through 8. Stamford lists an enrollment of about 76 students, also in Grades K through 8.

Both districts send high school students primarily to schools in Berkshire County, Mass.

The two elementary schools are less than 4 miles apartment, and the towns are linked by Route 8.

The Clarksburg school project involves a $19 million expansion and renovation of the school that will receive $11.3 million in approved reimbursement funding from the state.

The elementary school dates to 1952. A junior high wing was added in 1967, and an additional wing was added five years later. Construction plans call for additional class and instruction space and major infrastructure upgrades, along with a new gymnasium.

Concerning the Act 46 process, the Stamford district will likely have to submit to the state board a proposal for an alternative district format. The town apparently can no longer meet a deadline for voting again and approving the rejected consolidation plan and receive education tax reductions over the next four years.

According to minutes of recent Stamford School Board meetings, the school was not included in September by the State Board of Education on a preliminary list of districts considered geographically isolated. However, an appeal letter was discussed by the board.

Sibilia has said she believes Stamford is among the most geographically isolated districts in Southern Vermont. While the town is linked by an interstate highway to Massachusetts, there are no paved roads leading directly west to Pownal.

A school district seeking approval for an alternative format has until at least Dec. 26 to file a proposal with the BOE.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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