FWSU schools request status quo

Nearly a year after disbanding their Act 46 study committee, Franklin West Supervisory Union schools have come full circle.

Georgia, Fairfax and Fletcher school districts are poised to submit a joint application to the state board of education for an alternative structure under the state’s landmark education law that asked smaller districts to merge operations by 2019.

“Alternative structure” is a misnomer, though, superintendent Ned Kirsch said, given that the proposal ultimately asks the state to allow FWSU to stay the same.

That’s because the SU – which consists of the smallest possible number of disparate units with Fletcher’s preK-6, Georgia’s preK-8 and Fairfax’s preK-12 – has spent the last five years merging operations internally, combining resources in everything from transportation to curriculum “to build a better system,” Kirsch said.

“Those were the rules of the game at that point, so that’s what we did,” he added, referring to the legislature’s Act 153, which
predated Act 46 by seven years. “A lot of districts never did that.”

In complying with Act 153, FWSU centralized operations like special education, technology, assessment and learning management systems, Kirsch said, all areas he’s detailed on the lengthy application, currently at 15 pages and still growing.

Kirsch could only identify one more area for potential combination in the SU: custodial services.

“Besides that, pretty much everything we do, we do as a system,” he said. “We can make the case to the state that we’ve done all this work … we meet the definition of an alternative structure.”

Enacted in 2015, Act 46 acknowledged the “preferred structure” it tasked districts to merge into may not be “possible or the best model” for all schools across the state.

So, to maintain the status quo, districts that haven’t voluntarily merged by July 1, 2019 must prove they already achieve the goals of Act 46 to provide equitable and varied educational opportunities, maximize efficiencies and tamp down spending.

The state says these districts must “self-evaluate, have regional discussions and propose steps to improve [their] ability to meet and exceed” the law’s goals.

FWSU schools have done that – and then some. The process began with forming a 10-member study committee of school board and community members from all three districts last year. After 10 months of work, the group found no clear path to unification – either by way of a three-town merger with construction of a new high school or a side-by-side merger requiring Fairfax and Fletcher to unify – and unanimously voted to disband last October.

Each district split off and continued its own study in varying levels of formality: while Fairfax and Fletcher formed new, robust study committees and courted other districts outside the SU, Georgia exchanged emissaries with Sheldon and South Hero’s school boards to informally consider their options.

In the end, all the towns opted to go their separate ways.

“They felt that what they had built in Franklin West was worth keeping,” Kirsch said. “Each of the boards in Franklin West came to that conclusion independently.”

Once the state released highly anticipated guidance for alternative structure proposals in June, Kirsch got to work on FWSU’s joint application, a tedious collection of data and analysis he’s spent the summer amassing.

Next Tuesday, he’ll present his draft to all three school boards at their carousel meeting – yet another example of well-integrated operations, Kirsch noted.

Simply put, Kirsch believes FWSU schools are not the type Act 46 was created to change or fix.

Indeed, officials say the law was a direct response to declining student enrollment and rising property taxes statewide. Kirsch contends FWSU has bucked those trends: Unlike many of its neighbors, the SU is actually growing – Kirsch estimated a 3 percent increase in student population across the three districts so far this year – and is also among the lowest-spending.

“We are a successful system, we are a low spending system, we have been recognized nationally on many occasions for the work that we do … we have all these things going for us,” Kirsch said.

Still, he recognizes the state board and secretary of education could find otherwise, leaving the fate of each district at their mercy. The secretary will submit a statewide plan to the state board by Nov. 30, 2018; in doing so, she has authority to merge incompliant districts at will.

While Kirsch is hopeful the state will recognize FWSU’s efficiencies, he admits he has “no idea” what will happen when the board hears the proposal, likely this winter. He knows of no other operations like FWSU applying for an alternative structure, meaning his proposal will be a litmus test of sorts for how the state applies Section 9 of its law.

“We work well together, and I think it would be really sad if the state didn’t recognize that not everyone’s a square peg in a square hole,” he said.

Alternative structure proposals are due to the state by December 26. Once he gets feedback at next week’s carousel meeting, Kirsch expects to submit his by the end of September and anticipates appearing on the state board’s agenda to argue his case by November or December.

After that, he said, it’s anyone’s guess.

“I just hope for the best,” he said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that all the work we’ve done is worthwhile.”

The carousel board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at BFA-Fairfax.

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