After years of study committees, votes and uncertainty, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union finally knows where it's headed.
The Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford school districts must merge by July 1, 2019. The existing Mount Anthony Union School District, for grades 7 to 12, and the non-operating North Bennington School District will not be merged, according to a final statewide plan by the State Board of Education, released late Friday in connection with Act 46.
The merged districts will form the Southwest Vermont Union Elementary School District, educating students in pre-K through grade 6. The district will be assigned to the SVSU. This is in line with the recommendation made by then-Acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey in a report, known as the Section 10 report, released in June.
Act 46, made law in 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, and created three phases of voluntary school district merger and one non-voluntary phase.
The statewide plan was released on the day of the deadline to make it public.
"It's pretty much what we expected," said David Durfee, vice chairman of the Shaftsbury School District board. "It's been strongly hinted at, I would say, for well over a year."
Durfee said he thinks it will take some time for everyone to get used to the change.
But, he said, there are protections to keep schools open, referencing the articles of agreement for the SVSU released in connection with the statewide plan.
"There are protections built into the plan to keep the schools open — not indefinitely, but for several years," he said. [I] want to make clear that there isn't any imminent threat of that happening."
When Shaftsbury voters went to the polls in November 2017, they overwhelmingly chose to support merger, Durfee said.
They voted on a proposal that would bring schools into compliance with Act 46 through providing for a merger of the Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, Mount Anthony Union and Woodford school districts into a single pre-K to 12th grade district with one board and one budget.
That proposal was defeated by four votes in Pownal and two votes in Woodford.
"I think that there [are] always, of course, people on both sides of the issue," Durfee said. "And that's probably still true."
Although Dick Frantz, clerk of the Woodford School District board, also expected the decision that was announced by the state board, he said he still has concerns about upcoming changes.
Namely, the planned addition of two more districts to the SVSU.
The state board voted in mid-November to make the Arlington School District and non-operating Sandgate School District, which currently make up the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, part of the SVSU as of July 1, 2021 through a redrawing of SU boundaries. The board made the decision over the opposition of both the involved supervisory unions.
The SVSU board voted Wednesday to ask the state board to put off the merger until the same time as the Arlington and Sandgate districts join the supervisory union — July 1, 2021.
"There is no possible way that they can't impact our tax rate even higher than we were looking already," Frantz said. "I believe that Arlington pays their staff — administration, teachers — higher. And I can't imagine that will not affect our rate upwards."
Woodford has the lowest tax rate of the SVSU, he said. In a merger, tax rates of the involved districts would be averaged, to create a tax rate for the new district, he said.
And Woodford's would rise.
"I don't see that there's a win situation for Woodford," Frantz said.
He said he is also concerned about the possibility that taxpayers will become "really irritated" by the concept that they might have to pay more, and could possibly close Woodford's school because of it.
"There's always a component that says, 'I'm paying too much in taxes, why don't we just send our kids to Bennington?'" he said.
And, he said, he doesn't have any question in his mind that the state would like to close small schools, as they want certain ratios of teachers and students that relate to saving money, he said.
And the state could also "simply make up some kind of rule that Woodford can't comply with."
Then the town would lose its school.
"I don't want to see that happen," he said. "We have a unique environment."
The articles of agreement for the SVSU provide protection against closure for two academic years, 2019-20 and 2020-21, unless the closure is approved by voters living in the town where the school is located.
Existing union school buildings could not be closed during that time, unless approved by voters of the new union district.The articles also address an issue repeatedly brought up in the Act 46 process by SVSU districts — school governance on a new district board.
Under the articles of agreement, each town in merged districts would have two seats on the new union district board — no matter the size of the town.
That's contrary to the idea put forth by the Mount Anthony Unified School District second merger study committee, which recommended four seats for Bennington, two for North Bennington, two for Pownal, two for Shaftsbury and one for Woodford.
That model followed the Mount Anthony Union Board's governance system.
In crafting the final plan, the board was looking to meet the goals of Act 46 in the best way possible, said Krista Huling, chairwoman of the state board, when reached Friday.
For the SVSU in particular, Huling said "what stands out" for her is the idea of creating a shared vision for pre-K through grade 12 education.
Adults are being asked to pool resources, to make sure children get all the opportunities they can, she said.
All districts have some options to amend articles of agreement, Huling said.
Some elements of the SVSU articles of agreement cannot be changed, or can be changed only by a majority of voters of the new union district, or individual towns.
For example, only the voters of the new union district could change the governance structure of the new union district board. Districts subject to merger have 90 days to approve changes to articles, as allowed.
The state Agency of Education plans to release guidance to help merging districts with "a path forward," Huling said.
"This has been .. a very long process," she said. "And I know that not everybody is happy. But when you are doing hard work like this and looking at the state, not everybody is going to be happy with the results. But looking forward, I do see this as a positive move for the state."
She said there's been a lot of creative solutions around the state, and she's excited to see "even more" creative opportunities.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.