WSESU Narrows Its Consolidation Options

Staff Report

Last month the Agency of Education established guidelines that would allow school districts to forego a merger. But local school officials say it won’t be that easy.

Each district would have to prove to the state that not merging is justified. In the state’s draft of “Guidance: Proposals by One or More Non-Merging Districts for an ‘Alternative Structure’ Under Act 46 (2015),” remaining the same is considered if a supervisory union proves it meets state education goals, including efficiency in spending, equity and quality. Alternate structure proposals are due by Nov. 30, 2017. Test scores, student-teacher ratio and the number of subjects offered are some criteria that would be considered.

It was one option — of a list of six — Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union is considering as it works to comply with Act 46, the school consolidation law. But the new guidelines make the status quo seem impossible, said Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent David Baker.

“As I read through it I didn’t think there was a lot of hope for small school districts to get beyond those criteria,” Baker said. “I wish I felt more optimistic but I don’t.”

It’s a “complicated situation” at Windsor Southeast, where three towns have school choice and one doesn’t.

“(Merging) is a nice theory but I just don’t think it’s going to happen,” Baker said.

There’s a meeting Sept. 13 where the Act 46 study committee will decide to keep studying six merger proposals or disband so schools can join other districts.

West Windsor has talked with neighboring Windsor Central Supervisory Union. Hartland’s talked with Thetford. Reading’s talked with Springfield. Conversations have been informal so far, Baker said.

Every school is organized differently at Windsor Southeast. Hartland and Weathersfield have school choice, allowing students in grades 9-12 to pick their high schools. West Windsor has school choice for grades 7-12 while Windsor doesn’t offer school choice. When schools merge the law says they have to have the same organizational structure.

In all options the Windsor Southeast Act 46 study committee is considering, at least one school would lose something.

Besides staying the same, the following options are being considered:

• Windsor and West Windsor would merge and Hartland and Weathersfield would merge. West Windsor would lose school choice.

• Windsor and Weathersfield would merge separate from Hartland and West Windsor. Weathersfield would lose school choice.

• If Windsor merges with Hartland and Weathersfield merges with West Windsor, Hartland would lose school choice. West Windsor would lose school choice for the middle school or Weathersfield would have to offer school choice.

• Hartland, West Windsor and Weathersfield would merge and Windsor would be a separate district. Two school boards and one supervisory union would manage the separate districts. Weathersfield would school choice for middle school unless Hartland and West Windsor offer school choice.

• The unified district option puts all students, grades pre-K through 12, in one district with one school board and one budget. School choice options would disappear and students would go to the newly created regional high school, likely at the current Windsor High School.

“It’s been a bit frustrating because as a supervisory union we do all work together pretty well,” Windsor school board chair Amy McMullen said.

Windsor school board’s preferred option is the unified district.

“We would be able to provide a continuum of education services for kids pre-K-12,” McMullen said.

Up to 10 percent of the high school population would still be able to choose another high school under Act 129.

“It’s still very difficult to have these local towns have to make these difficult decisions about different operating structures,” Baker said.

If the towns do nothing, the state would take over in 2018.

“Maybe there will be some great awakening and the four towns that already work well together will see that it’s going to be more cost effective and we can build some quality in a unified system,” Baker said.

This article first appeared in the August 25, 2016 edition of the Vermont Standard.

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