FWSU committee considers merger, new high school

The future of education in Fletcher, Fairfax and Georgia is up for discussion at FWSU Act 46 unification study committee meetings, where members are considering several options. (Courtesy photo)

The committee charged with studying Franklin West Supervisory Union’s merger options is making good on its promise to consider all possibilities for its three member schools, from joining with South Hero to building a new high school.

At its last meeting on March 3, the third since January, the group voted to allow two South Hero representatives a non-voting advisory role on the committee to explore merging with Georgia under landmark education law Act 46, after its board expressed interest in discussing the option.

South Hero operates Folsom Education and Community Center, a preK-8 with high school choice 20 miles from Georgia Elementary and Middle School.

South Hero board alternate Tim Maxham said his district shares similar educational goals with Georgia, including a strong desire to retain high school choice. Many families send their children to school off the island after eighth grade and don’t want to see that change, he said.

Maxham added the school enjoys continued support from voters, who haven’t defeated a budget in “years and years” and passed the most recent proposal by nearly 2 to 1 on Town Meeting Day.

Committee members – especially Georgia’s – saw value in engaging South Hero immediately, especially as other eligible preK-8 schools are swept up in other mergers: Voters approved five this Town Meeting Day, the closest in Fairfield and St. Albans City and Town.

A South Hero partnership would form one “side” of the side-by-side structure necessary to retain high school choice, keep FWSU intact and satisfy the state’s requirements.

Following “yes” votes in both towns, the two districts would dissolve into one, creating one budget, curriculum and school board, likely with proportional representation. Both would be eligible for the unification law’s tax incentives.

The other side of FWSU would consist of Fletcher and Fairfax, merged into one preK-12 district. Fletcher trustee Diane Dayvie took issue with the discussion of school choice almost exclusively in Georgia.

“I don’t think I’ve heard Fletcher mentioned once tonight,” she said. “In this little scenario, everyone gets to keep choice except Fletcher.”

A preK-6, Fletcher has fewer like partners to consider merging with across the state, much less in the region. Adding two grade levels to become preK-8 is also out of the question without going to a bond vote to expand the already overpopulated school.

Fletcher parent Ellen Bethea said her daughter plans to attend Browns River Middle School in Jericho next year for seventh grade.

“When we found out this might be happening, we looked at other properties,” she said. “If my sixth-grader couldn’t go to another school, we’d have to move.”

In an email to the Independent, parent Christina DeGraff-Murphy said even more parents are considering moving out of town or even out of state over that very issue. Her family moved there for choice and remained, despite rising property taxes.

“I remain hopeful that Fletcher may retain school choice if we make enough noise,” she said. “To lose this benefit is incredibly devastating.”

A new high school?

Kirsch said the committee will study “all angles and issues,” and if a side-by-side structure fails to satisfy members, at least one option that hasn’t been attempted in Vermont in over 20 years is on the table: Building a new high school.

Kirsch first raised the idea at the committee’s inaugural meeting in January. This time, he brought numbers, albeit rough estimates, showing the cost of building a school serving 560 students from all three towns at $27.5 million. In talking to colleagues he has since discovered that estimate is likely high.

Kirsch said a 30-year bond at 3.1 percent interest would cost $1.75 million in year one and shrink each subsequent year as principal and interest decreases.

Current high school spending across FWSU is $7.6 million, or about $13,600 per student. That number includes operating costs of Bellows Free Academy-Fairfax and tuition costs for Georgia and Fletcher students but excludes all three districts’ special education, transportation, central office and maintenance costs.

A new high school could cost about $14,279 per pupil, including those extra costs, Kirsch said.

In a recap to the Georgia School Board, committee member Ben Chiappinelli said Kirsch’s estimates weren’t as burdensome as he originally anticipated.

The preliminary price tag didn’t scare the rest of the committee, either – instead, they decided it was worth further consideration, OK’ing Kirsch to research a more formal proposal.

“We’d be doing something besides just shuffling around,” Dayvie said. “This is more forward-thinking.”

Chiappinelli agreed: “We all talk about how we love our little schools,” he said. “Who’s to say we won’t love our high school?”

Kirsch said residential development in all three towns only bolsters the idea, and he predicted a new local high school would even raise property values.

“I don’t know why we would build anything than the best high school in the state,” he said.

DeGraff-Murphy wasn’t so sure, calling the idea “irresponsible” and urging the group to focus on real cost savings.

She also questioned why only 9 percent of Georgia students choose BFA-Fairfax, instead traveling farther to schools outside FWSU: 13 percent to Essex, 32 percent to South Burlington and 40 percent to St. Albans.

Some committee members doubted three “very different” districts could successfully operate one school, or that the state board of education would even approve such a plan.

Fairfax member Rachelle LaVau wondered whether it was responsible to build a new school under a law that originated partly to address declining enrollment and rising property taxes.

Consultant Mike Deweese, a former superintendent, said the secretary of education should approve the plan before the state board.

More doubt arose over whether voters could support such a proposal on a ballot – especially in Fairfax, where the already-operating high school would shut its doors.

“For a lot of Fairfax people, it would be hard to swallow that,” committee member and Fairfax resident Karen Hebert said.

Georgia members, too, recalled a meeting seven years ago when residents shot down the idea of designating a high school for Georgia students.

Kirsch believed building a school Georgia voters owned would fare better than choosing one out of town, which he said amounted to “taxation without representation.”

Chiappinelli agreed: “How comfortable are people with the decisions BFA-St. Albans makes that they don’t have a say in?” he asked.

For Dayvie, the answer was simple.

“I don’t want to be a renter,” she said. “I want to be an owner.”

The committee meets next at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 17 in the GEMS library.