Act 46: Subcommittee drafts articles of agreement

While the discussion surrounding a proposed Fairfax, Fletcher and Georgia unification within a new high school garnered most of the attention at a well-attended Act 46 study committee meeting September 1, there was a more intimate, subdued environment at the breakout session focused on a potential “alternative structure” model the same night.

The 10-member Franklin West Supervisory Union Act 46 committee, which has held biweekly meetings since January to study the SU’s options under the education consolidation law, hopes to present its two subcommittees’ findings by October 13 to reach the State Agency of Education by November.

There’s no guarantee either option will pass public muster, though. As has happened in other districts with complicated mergers, the committee could reconsider or disband altogether if consensus can’t be reached.

The alternative structure proposal is further challenged by the state, which requires committees show all options were exhausted before Georgia can pursue a stand-alone and maintain its status quo.

In that scenario, Fletcher and Fairfax would submit a merger proposal to the state; a separate Georgia proposal would be due at the same time requesting the preK-8 school continue operating on its own but stay within FWSU.

The five-member subcommittee studying a Fletcher-Fairfax merger, which would consolidate the towns under a single district using BFA-Fairfax and Fletcher Elementary schools as resources, has spent the previous three meetings writing proposed articles of agreement to present to the full committee next month.

At the Sept. 1 meeting in the GEMS library, consultant Steve Sanborn helped the subcommittee negotiate language, and after an hour, 11 articles were discussed or agreed to.

The template includes the much-discussed breakdown of a new hybrid school board. The five-member panel agreed Fairfax and Fletcher should both have one member serving a two-year term and two members each serving three-year terms, with one three-year at-large board member – a total of seven seats.

The proposed article does not require proportional appointment by town population; state law says the new school board would maintain that representation at least until the next U.S. Census.

Article 2 concerns grandfathering students in grades 9-12 to stay at their current high schools. Any students transitioning to a new school would come back to Fairfax and Fletcher.

That would exclude, for example, students attending Browns River in Jericho, who would attend the new Fairfax-Fletcher district rather than move on to Mt. Mansfield Union High School in ninth grade.

Grandfathering rules will expire completely in 2021.

Article 2 also states the new district will offer grades preK-12, prompting further discussion on early education. In the proposed new district, student access to resources must be equitable. Since every student in Fletcher is guaranteed preschool, the same must apply in Fairfax.

BFA-Fairfax had not previously allocated the space or the programs to offer preschool to all its eligible students, but with room for up to 1,200 kids, the space does exist, and the Fairfax board will attempt to budget for it.

“We can’t make it a mandate because that ties their hands way too much,” Fairfax subcommittee rep Rachelle LeVau said.

Some proposed articles were boilerplate language, while others – like Article 4, concerning no new school buildings – would be completely rewritten in the case of a new Fletcher-Fairfax-Georgia unification, the option concurrently studied by the other subcommittee [see story, ‘Public decries hypothetical unification,’ on page 1 and above.]

“This is a template for just this committee,” Sanborn noted.

Still, the subcommittee added language to Article 4 which would place two “gates” that must pass before a school could be closed in the new district: The town would need a majority “yes” to close it, then a unanimous vote by the regional district board of directors.

Act 153 states no school can be closed without approval of the town where it resides.

Article 5, concerning transportation services, prompted another conversation about equity: Fairfax owns its school buses while Fletcher contracts its out.

If the state approves the Fletcher-Fairfax articles, they could come back to both towns for a vote. Pursuing an alternative structure, Georgia would have to engage in a self-study, which the state would take “under advisement” to act on by the end of November 2018.

If the state rejects Georgia’s alternative proposal, the secretary of education retains the power to reassign the district somewhere else in the state – a risk the Georgia contingent is fearful of.

The subcommittee wondered if equity of bus services in both Georgia and Fletcher-Fairfax would help the SU’s state application. Does Georgia stand to lose resources, like busing services, to maintain equity across the new SU?

Georgia would still have members on the supervisory union board, Sanborn said, and it’s the SU’s responsibility to deal with equity issues, including busing. Those discussions would need to happen before the vote, members agreed.

“The process is actually unfolding as we speak,” Georgia representative Deb Woodward said.

Article 7 says the community must vote on the use of any funds, which could theoretically happen on Town Meeting Day at the same time towns consider a merger proposal.

Article 8 maintains the principal will be the building administrator, and property or land transfers or sales are subject to the rules laid out in Article 4, with two “gates” at all times.

In Fairfax’s case, land cannot be sold or transferred without the written consent of the Bellow family, LeVau said.

An attachment to the articles would have to outline those guidelines, Sanborn added.

When the committee reconvenes Thursday, Sept. 15 at BFA-Fairfax, the subcommittee will continue to discuss the remaining articles as it moves toward its public presentation, slated for October 13.

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