Fairfax, Fletcher begin merger talks

FAIRFAX — Access to preschool, the makeup of a new school board and class sizes were all discussed July 7 by a committee exploring the possible merger of the Fletcher and Fairfax school districts.

The panel is a subcommittee of the Franklin West Supervisory Union Act 46 Unification Study Committee, which has been exploring options for the three school districts within FWSU. After months of discussion, that committee created two subcommittees, each with representation from Fairfax, Fletcher and Georgia to delve more deeply into two options – merging Fairfax and Fletcher districts and leaving Georgia as it is, and creating a merged district with all three districts combining to build a new high school.

The Fletcher-Fairfax merger sub-committee will work to establish basic rules for operating the new district created by the merger. Should the committee at-large decide to pursue this option, articles of agreement will likely be presented to voters next year for their approval or rejection.

If neither option appears viable, the committee still has the option of lobbying to the state for alternative structures, essentially leaving the three districts as they currently stand under FWSU.

“We’re currently able to offer preschool to any child, 3 to 4 years old, that wants it in Fletcher,” said Fletcher School Board member Diane Dayvie, part of the six-member Fletcher/Fairfax subcommittee group.

Dayvie said she wanted to see Fairfax increase its preschool capacity in a merged district.

“If that’s not how it’s going to work, then we need to talk about what is going to happen,” she said.

“That’s going to be extremely challenging, because Fairfax doesn’t have room to expand preschool at this point,” committee member Karen Hebert of Fairfax replied, noting that all of the newly formed district’s students could be put in a lottery.

Dayvie feared that would limit the universal preschool program – a deal breaker for her, she said.

Hebert suggested the merged school board would ultimately decide which grade levels would be distributed between the two elementary schools. Fletcher Elementary is currently “making due” with the school’s limited size, principal Chris Dodge said.

“I would not say that we have adequate classroom space for one room for each grade level,” Dodge said.

Hebert said the proposed articles of agreement should require the future board be sensitive about priorities for universal preschool and class size limitations. But ultimately, the new board will require the flexibility to make its own decisions in the best interest of the students from year to year.

“The fact is that you have two buildings, there are a lot of opportunities … these are just some ideas about how you would do it,” Hebert said.

“The needs of one become the needs of both,” committee member Deb Woodward of Georgia said. “The district will meet both towns’ needs. They become the same thing … so if that is the bar, then the district meets it.”

Dayvie later suggested Fairfax would need to take Fletcher’s fifth and sixth grades.

“I still feel like we’re trying to do the work of the future board by trying to be that specific,” Hebert countered.

Discussion then centered on the easiest decision for the group: the new school board’s makeup. The proposed articles of agreement would recommend a seven-member hybrid board consisting of two Fairfax representatives, two Fletcher representatives and three at-large members. Candidates running for positions would come from one pool and be voted upon the residents of both towns.

The two candidates from Fletcher with the most votes would receive the two seats designated for Fletcher. Similarly, the two candidates from Fairfax receiving the most votes would fill the two seats set aside for Fairfax. The remaining three seats would go to the next highest vote recipients regardless of town.

Should no one from Fletcher run, the two Fletcher seats would be filled by an appointment process prioritizing Fletcher residents.

Later, Dayvie expressed concern that a bond vote for improvements needed at Fletcher Elementary would not pass. While some building repairs are mandatory, others, especially concerning the elementary school’s space issues, are discretionary. Both BFA-Fairfax and Fletcher schools need maintenance to their facilities in the next five years, and support will be needed from both towns.

“If the bond vote doesn’t pass, it’s not really going to do anything to our offerings,” Hebert advised. Currently, a bond vote is on hold, likely until after the merger decision is made.

Without unification, a bond will likely be needed to meet the needs of students at Fletcher. That bond will affect the tax rate, too.

“If you’re not going to support unification, then we better see your butts in seats when it comes to voting on the bond,” Woodward said. “It’s an either/or … you’re either supporting the bond vote or you’re supporting unification, but you can’t show up and hate both.”

Cost of education, of course, remains a major hurdle for both Fletcher and Fairfax. A tax rate analysis should be forthcoming in future FWSU committee meetings later this summer.

Fairfax is already facing the loss of tuition-paying high school students from Fairfield and Westford, both of which have chosen to merge with other towns and will be sending their students only to BFA-St. Albans and Essex High School, respectively.

Hebert suggested that, like the tax rate analysis, projections for student enrollment from Fairfax and Fletcher are needed. Will losing Fairfield and Westford but gaining all of Fletcher balance out?

Both Fletcher and Fairfax currently have similar class size objectives. Under the merger proposal, students could be distributed between the two schools based on convenience for families. If Fletcher has a bubble year with an abnormally large class size for a specific grade, parents may choose to send them to Fairfax. Likewise, if a grade level is abnormally small, some Fairfax students may choose to attend Fletcher.

Dodge said those numbers change every year at the eight-classroom Fletcher Elementary School. He agreed with Hebert that articles of agreement should allow flexibility for the new board to make decisions based on that year’s class sizes.

“The idea is that the merged district would utilize the two buildings in the most efficient way that’s best for the students’ interests,” Hebert said.

The committee meets again on Thursday, July 21 at 5:30 p.m. at Fletcher Elementary School.

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