State requires BVSU to do merger study


ARLINGTON -- The Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union recently learned it has three months to conduct a study and submit a recommendation to the state about the effects of joining an adjacent supervisory union, Superintendent Thomas Gallagher said at his first BVSU meeting Wednesday.

Requesting more time

The requirement was issued by the Vermont State Board of Education at its May 18 meeting, when the board also permitted the BVSU to hire Gallagher as a part-time interim superintendent for one year.

Vermont law allows the state board to approve a superintendent hiring, and, according to Title 16, paragraph 261, the board also has the option of regrouping supervisory unions -- essentially forcing the school districts in one supervisory union to join another.

However, Gallagher and other education officials in the state said they have never heard of the board forcing the consolidation of a supervisory union but it has the authority to do so even if the BVSU study shows it would not be beneficial to do so.

Gallagher, who took over for Charles Sweetman at the beginning of the month, said he just recently heard of the state board's decision and he expects the BVSU board to write a letter requesting more time to conduct the study.

The state board unanimously approved a motion that states "The State Board of Education vote to place the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union under consideration for a supervisory union boundary change and permit the supervisory union board to hire an interim superintendent of schools for one year while the study on joining an adjacent supervisory union is completed."

Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca suggested that the supervisory union, which consists of two schools in Arlington that total less than 400 students, submit the study and a recommendation by Nov. 1, according to minutes of the meeting.

The motion passed before the legislative session came to an end -- when it was still unknown what the Legislature would do regarding school consolidation, said Mark Oettinger, general counsel for the state Department of Education.

With Act 153 coming from the session, which encourages voluntary consolidation to supervisory unions and school districts, Oettinger said he would not be surprised if the state board did grant an extension upon a written request from BVSU Chairwoman Jeanne Zoppel.

"Now that we know about Act 153 and we know there is some significant discussion going on down there ... I think it would make sense to give them some additional time," he said.

Gallagher said a thorough study would be difficult to complete in three months. "For me, it's more complicated than should we go north or south. We need to look at educational issues and budgeting issues that no one's even talking about," Gallagher said in an interview Thursday.

Gallagher said that to do the study correctly, he and the BVSU board will need to review a lot of information about budgets and programs for both the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union in Bennington and the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union in Manchester, which were the only two supervisory unions mentioned by he or the board.

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In recent months, the BVSU board has prepared to study multiple school governance options once Gallagher took over, but with a timeline of three months to conduct this study, as it stands now, Gallagher said there is no time to consider other options unless BVSU is granted an extension.

Closer look at regrouping

"The study on joining an adjacent supervisory union is the study that I've been charged to do by the state board. Not joining a RED (regional education district), not getting larger, but to study which supervisory union to join," Gallagher told the board.

Gallagher said he will recommend that Zoppel request an extension as well as the opportunity to study and submit other options that may better suit the supervisory union.

Gallagher said it will be up to the BVSU board how it wishes to proceed before getting a response from the state board, which meets next on Aug. 17.

One of Gallagher's concerns with the state statute is even if the study does not show benefits from joining another supervisory union, the districts of Arlington and Sandgate could still be told to do so, he said.

John Nelson, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said that in recent years with the shortfall in the state budget and declining enrollment across Vermont, both the state Board of Education and the commissioner have taken a closer look at the portion of the statute regarding regrouping supervisory unions.

"Whenever there is an opportunity or a need to hire a superintendent (the state board) has in the past, sort of looked at the situation and considered at least whether there should be some change in the supervisory union lines," Nelson said. "As far as I know they have never forced change before."

State board member Stephen Morse, who made the motion regarding BVSU, said Thursday that if BVSU's study showed it would not be beneficial to join another supervisory union, it would be unlikely the board would force a change.

But Morse, who lives in Newfane, said he is interested in seeing a study on the impact of consolidation. "There are two reasons to go through this process -- one is to increase education opportunities and the second is the cost-savings," Morse said. "The theory being ... if a school district is bigger it can provide more educational opportunities for the students than a lot of smaller districts."

Morse said there are no other supervisory unions that were given a similar charge to study joining other supervisory unions, although part of Act 153 does require supervisory unions to discuss consolidation options.

Both the Arlington and Sandgate boards will hold joint meetings Aug. 4 at 6 p.m., and on Aug. 18 to discuss the study.

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