Merger study committee begins work

Top and above: The Franklin West Supervisory Union Act 46 Unification Study Committee is pictured at its first meeting in the GEMS library on Thursday, Jan. 29. Top photo: FWSU Superintendent Ned Kirsch (fifth from left) and consultant Mike Deweese (center). Deweese's fellow consultant, Steve Sanborn, is obscured from view; committee chairman Todd Baumeister and Fairfax committee member Karen Hebert are not pictured. (Photos by Abby Ledoux)

Top and above: The Franklin West Supervisory Union Act 46 Unification Study Committee is pictured at its first meeting in the GEMS library on Thursday, Jan. 29. Top photo: FWSU Superintendent Ned Kirsch (fifth from left) and consultant Mike Deweese (center). Deweese’s fellow consultant, Steve Sanborn, is obscured from view; committee chairman Todd Baumeister and Fairfax committee member Karen Hebert are not pictured. (Photos by Abby Ledoux)

Franklin West Supervisory Union operates under one mission statement: “A belief in what’s possible.”

That couldn’t be more fitting, two consultants said, as a 10-person committee from FWSU’s three member schools began work last week to determine what shape education here will take in the coming years.

Georgia, Fairfax and Fletcher school board and community members met for the first time last Thursday evening to study unification under Act 46, the landmark law that asks schools to merge into larger, more cost-effective structures by 2019.

Guiding the committee are consultants Mike Deweese and Steve Sanborn, both retired Vermont superintendents with experience in Act 46 mergers. Between the two, they’ve had three proposals approved by the State Board of Education.

FWSU Superintendent Ned Kirsch secured a $25,000 grant to fund the consultants’ work; local boards will kick in for remaining costs and future legal fees.

The first meeting mainly introduced the upcoming workload, which will likely culminate in a 2017 Town Meeting Day vote. The committee will meet biweekly for at least the next six months.

Clocking in at 64 pages, Act 46 is complex. But at its heart are state goals aligned with those of school boards: Provide the best possible education at the most affordable rate, consultants agreed.

Anticipating a long road, committee members voiced hopes and concerns alike during Thursday’s introduction.

“I have more fears than anything else,” Fletcher trustee Diane Dayvie said, naming loss of Fletcher’s identity as chief. “We’re doing too much too quick, and that scares me.”

Fletcher board chairman Todd Baumeister, who the group tapped as its leader, echoed these concerns given Fletcher’s size limitations: “We’re bursting at the seams,” he said.

For Kirsch, Act 46 is a cloud of uncertainty.

“I live all your hopes and fears every day, for all of your schools,” he said. “I have a unique perspective.”

Georgia members spoke of wanting to retain high school choice, which has dominated discussion on the law’s implications. Sanborn emphasized the legislature doesn’t want to take away school choice; only a town’s electorate can effectively do that.

FWSU will likely seek a side-by-side structured merger, which would – in one scenario – require Georgia to join with another preK-8 school with choice and for Fairfax and Fletcher to merge.

The latter schools – preK-12 and preK-6, respectively – considered this in a 2011 study, but both towns defeated a ballot proposal that November.

If the side-by-side is approved through Act 46, the four schools would form two sides in a two-member supervisory union, essentially upholding FWSU.

Some wondered if Georgia could forgo a partner and remain part of the SU. Consultants said this alternative structure would disqualify Georgia from incentives like reduced tax rates and transition grants, while the other “side” of FWSU would receive them.

This was the least of Georgia members’ worries once consultants reminded them if a school doesn’t merge into a suitable structure by 2019, the state could feasibly place it in one. Members were hesitant to entertain the risk of upsetting the entire FWSU apple cart.

Deweese and Sanborn’s presentation also covered unification efforts in Vermont 100 years ago, when the Carnegie Commission introduced SUs to the educational landscape.

“Act 46 is nothing new,” Sanborn said, noting it’s simply the latest in about 20 attempts to modify SU structure.

In the last six years, the legislature established regional education districts and side-by-side mergers with Acts 153 and 156, respectively. In the 1960s and ’70s, union schools burgeoned with the construction of Champlain Valley, Mount Mansfield, Missisquoi Valley, Lamoille, Harwood high schools and more.

Act 46 asks districts to consider arrangements that produce better student outcomes at a more sustainable cost, as declining enrollment and rising property taxes largely motivated the legislature’s work last session.

But at least the first part of that equation didn’t play out in FWSU schools, Kirsch said, where enrollment has increased, a reversal of the statewide trend.

Kirsch lauded all three schools’ work to trim budgets, streamline services and solidify the union, and he offered another possibility to explore: a new high school.

“We are growing communities,” he said. “We could have an amazing, amazing high school and have control of our high school and continue that excellence all the way for our students.”

Kirsch estimated the schools could bond for the same amount they already spend tuitioning students to other high schools. That proposal illustrated the larger theme of the evening: Everything is on the table.

“The world is going to change by July 1, 2019,” Deweese said. “You’ve got a lot of control over what that might mean.”

The FWSU unification study committee will meet next at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11 in the BFA-Fairfax library. Meetings will rotate around the three schools.

Who’s deciding FWSU’s future?

GEORGIA

  • Carl Laroe, school board chairman
  • Ben Chiappinelli, trustee
  • Michael Wasco, resident
  • Deb Woodward, resident

FAIRFAX

  • Rachelle LaVau, trustee
  • Scott Mitchell, trustee
  • Teresa Bedell, resident
  • Karen Hebert, resident

FLETCHER

  • Todd Baumeister, school board and Act 46 committee chairman
  • Diane Dayvie, trustee

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