Act 46 committee ranks options

Franklin West Supervisory Union superintendent Ned Kirsch tallies votes that represent Act 46 study committee members’ preferred school district structures. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

A side-by-side merger consisting of Fairfax and Fletcher on one side and Georgia on the other was deemed the most favorable arrangement for Franklin West Supervisory Union schools in an informal poll by its Act 46 unification study committee last week.

With the help of adviser and a former superintendent Mike Deweese, the committee looked at six potential options to pursue under the landmark education law mandating districts merge into more equitable, cost-effective structures by 2019.

Each FWSU-member school’s representatives distributed six “votes” – distinguished by colored stickers – among the options, which included:

  • A side-by-side merger between Fairfax-Fletcher and Georgia,
  • A side-by-side merger between Georgia-Fletcher and Fairfax,
  • A “true” side-by-side with Fairfax-Fletcher on one side and Georgia and another K-8 school with high school choice on the other,
  • A unified K-12 district with a new union high school,
  • Taking no action or pursuing individual avenues, thereby dissolving the study committee, or
  • An alternative structure – ineligible for tax incentives – with each school attempting to remain as-is within FWSU.

With 25 votes, the first option garnered the most support by far with 12 votes from Fairfax, seven from Georgia and six from Fletcher.

“It’s the least change while still doing something,” Fairfax School Board and committee member Rachelle LeVau said.

Scott Mitchell, fellow Fairfax board and committee member, agreed, noting the line between Fairfax and Fletcher is already blurred with both towns’ students participating jointly in youth sports and community-run extracurricular activities.

Todd Baumeister, committee chairman and Fletcher board member, allocated all six of his votes – half of Fletcher’s – to the option.

“It’s a win for both communities in my book,” he said, noting the influx of Fletcher students will help repopulate BFA-Fairfax when previously-tuitioned students from Westford will attend Essex High School next year, following those towns’ successful merger.

Dayvie, the other half of Fletcher’s representation on the study committee, offered no votes to the popular option, though she conceded it could spur some positive outcomes, like stabilizing Fletcher’s secondary costs, providing the town a voice at the high school level and allowing students to stay geographically close to home after sixth grade.

“I also have a whole lot of concerns,” Dayvie added, chief among them losing Fletcher’s individuality, especially considering its minority representation on a merged school board. “We don’t have that much, and I want to keep what we do have.”

She drew comparison to Graniteville, a tiny central Vermont community whose identity can appear dwarfed by neighboring Barre.

“I don’t want to be the Graniteville of Barre,” Dayvie said. “I don’t want to become the Fletcher of Fairfax.”

Baumeister countered, “I have equal love for Fletcher, but what’s going to be best for our kids and our town?”

Dayvie also lamented the loss of grade 8-12 choice the scenario would impose on Fletcher, and feared a merger wouldn’t provide enough educational opportunities or financial savings to offset what she viewed as Fletcher’s sacrifices.

Though Fletcher would enjoy tax incentives through merging, Dayvie wondered if taxpayers would find $500 of savings for a $250,000 home over four years a worthwhile tradeoff.

Baumeister refuted Dayvie’s concern over loss of representation on a merged school board, noting both Fairfax and Fletcher boards are already on similar paths.

“We want to do what’s best for our kids,” he said.

The sixth option – all schools pursuing an alternative structure to preserve FWSU – was the committee’s second choice with 12 votes, eight from Fairfax and two each from Georgia and Fletcher.

Deweese spent the better part of the meeting explaining that an alternative structure is essentially a continuation or establishment of a supervisory union with documentation on how and why it works.

Outside the three incentive-driven merger phases of Act 46, an alternative structure must have the smallest number of districts practicable with a combined daily membership of at least 1,100 students and prove it satisfies the law’s goals of educational equity and cost efficiency. Alternative structures are ineligible for the property tax breaks traditionally merged districts will receive.

With no duplication among its schools’ structures – Fairfax operates a K-12, Georgia operates a K-8 and Fletcher operate a K-6 – FWSU already has the smallest number of districts practicable, Deweese said.

The more difficult task would be showing the three schools offer equitable programs. Deweese said FWSU is “very typical” of other supervisory unions that operate “good schools” with some inequity between them.

Kirsch doubted FWSU could prove all three schools are equitable as they exist currently.

Deweese said each town would have to determine how to establish equity across districts, likely meaning splitting into sub-committees at upcoming meetings.

Georgia School Board and committee member Ben Chiappinelli wondered what that would look like for GEMS, which has invested in perks like a robust enrichment program, foreign language offerings and a makerspace lab.

“We’re kind of banging on all cylinders,” he said. “I would hate to get to a situation where we have to pull back.”

Deweese said the committee would have to ensure future school boards “hold each other’s feet to the fire on behalf of all students” or shift more responsibility from the local level to the central office.

Baumeister said taxpayers are already unhappy with a growing FWSU budget and would be reluctant to relinquish more control – and tax dollars – to that office. Mitchell agreed it would be difficult to sell a further inflated central office budget, especially without the level of transparency local line item budgets offer voters.

Dayvie asked Baumeister how he thought Fletcher’s giving more control to the central office was any different from being a minority on a merged school board.

“How do you think the town would react to music being run by the supervisory union?” he asked.

Dayvie replied a centrally run music program was a small price to pay for retaining Fletcher’s individuality.

After the unified K-12 district option earned only six votes, some committee members pondered the prudence of its decision at the last meeting to allocate up to $2,000 of its grant money for an architect to study the cost of building a new union high school.

That money is already partially spent, Kirsch reported, but the study likely won’t reach the $2,000 cap. He expects the results to be ready by the end of the month.

Members posited and Deweese agreed the state would likely look favorably upon the committee’s undergoing the cost analysis, even if it nixed pursuing the unified high school altogether, because it emphasized the schools’ diligence to exploring all options – a goal from day one.

The committee meets next on Thursday, May 12 at 5:30 p.m. in the BFA-Fairfax multipurpose rom.