The committee charged with exploring unification of Franklin West Supervisory Union schools under Act 46 narrowed its focus to two options for the summer.
The group of 10 school board members and residents of Georgia, Fairfax and Fletcher will split into two subcommittees beginning at the next meeting on June 9.
One group will further explore merging the three schools in a K-12 district with one unified high school, and the other will study a Fairfax/Fletcher merger with Georgia standing alone.
If neither option is deemed desirable, the committee will look to craft articles of agreement for three alternative structures, arguing each school can meet the requirements of Act 46 on its own.
“I think the public would support that very easily,” Fairfax board member Rachelle LeVau said.
Indeed, many residents from Georgia and Fletcher particularly have made it clear maintaining high school choice is a high priority.
Even so, Fletcher board member and committee chairman Todd Baumeister said, the status quo is not viable for Fletcher Elementary School, a small K-6 already bursting at the seams.
In a previous meeting, Baumeister said both the school’s budget and building are maxed out. The rising cost of educating Fletcher kids is unsustainable to the tax rate, he added, noting the community should consider that before turning down a merger.
Fletcher resident Christina DeGraff-Murphy advised the committee Fletcher residents might be more likely to consider relinquishing high school choice if the financial impact of maintaining the current structure was made clear.
“It sounds abysmal, [but] I haven’t seen the numbers,” she said.
Diane Dayvie, Fletcher school trustee and committee member, said the people of Fletcher should be prepared to vote yes on a bond to add on to the school if they vote no on a merger.
In 2011, cost savings weren’t enough to persuade Fletcher residents, though: Voters defeated a merger with Fairfax 131 to 68 despite a projected lower tax rate.
Georgia School Board chairman and committee member Carl Laroe recalled a similar situation seven years ago when the community balked at a proposal to designate BFA-Fairfax as the K-8’s high school. The $600,000 savings floated to residents wasn’t enough to offset losing school choice.
“That’s where they drew the line,” he said.
Georgia residents’ adverse reaction to that proposal gave Laroe pause to move forward with studying a unified high school, he added.
“It’s not designating a high school, it’s creating one,” FWSU superintendent Ned Kirsch countered. “You own something.”
Kirsch added both Georgia and Fletcher school boards currently have no control over high school tuition costs. With this ownership, school boards and voters could both have input on the budget past 6th or 8th grade.
LeVau suggested bringing a well thought-out plan to a public forum before ruling out any possibility.
“What do we do by taking that choice away from the voters?” she asked. “It’s important that the voters weigh in.”
The committee voted to expend $2,000 of its grant money to fund an architect’s study earlier this month; last Thursday, Kirsch presented the findings, which mostly aligned with his preliminary estimates.
A new unified high school would cost about $25-$26 million to construct and operate, which is “almost neutral to what we pay now” to tuition FWSU students, Kirsch said.
He urged the committee to consider what the three communities would look like 20 years from now.
“What do you think your kids, grandkids are going to want?” Kirsch asked. “This opportunity doesn’t come along often … we looked at it the last time 107 years ago.”
The committee was divided on the viability of such a proposal. Some, like Georgia Board Member Ben Chiappinelli, were optimistic and inspired by the opportunity to be “on the forefront of education,” as Georgia resident and committee member Mike Wasco said.
Others, like Georgia resident and committee member Deb Woodward, were less enthused. She classified Georgia as a “commuter community” made up of residents who travel south for work and bring their kids to schools on the way.
Fairfax resident and committee member Karen Hebert had reservations, too. She wondered about the region’s the economic future, especially after pharmaceutical company Mylan Technologies announced a layoff of 60 people from its St. Albans plant last week.
“[There are] too many unknowns,” Hebert said. “I’ve learned the hard way not to go on assumptions.”
Baumeister, Chiappinelli, Wasco and Fairfax committee members Scott Mitchell and Teresa Bedell will study the high school option for the next three months on a subcommittee.
The rest of the group – Dayvie, LeVau, Hebert, Laroe and Woodward – will form the other subcommittee to explore a structure with a Fairfax/Fletcher merger and Georgia standalone.
The subcommittees will work concurrently through the summer and return with their findings in September.
“This committee can only recommend something to the voters,” Kirsch emphasized. “The people decide.”
The committee meets next at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 9, location TBD.
FWSU Act 46 subcommittees
OPTION 1: Merged K-12 district with new unified high school
- Todd Baumeister, Fletcher
- Teresa Bedell, Fairfax
- Ben Chiappinelli, Georgia
- Scott Mitchell, Fairfax
- Mike Wasco, Georgia
OPTION 2: Fairfax/Fletcher merger with Georgia standalone
- Diane Dayvie, Fletcher
- Karen Hebert, Fairfax
- Carl Laroe, Georgia
- Rachelle LeVau, Fairfax
- Deb Woodward, Georgia