The Georgia School Board appointed two community members to the Act 46 Study Committee earlier this month, moving it one step closer to reviewing the landmark education law’s implications on the school.
At its meeting in October, the board asked residents to join Georgia’s ranks on the study committee, made up of members from all three schools in Franklin West Supervisory Union.
The board received six letters of interest from community members, five of whom introduced themselves at the Tuesday, Nov. 3 meeting.
In the end, Michael Wasco and Deb Woodward were chosen for membership on the committee, which FWSU Superintendent Ned Kirsch expects to begin meeting in January for the next six months to a year.
Board chairman Carl Laroe and member Ben Chiappinelli will join the residents. Fairfax will also invite two board members and two citizens, while Fletcher will just send two board members to study potential merger options.
Created to address rising property taxes and declining student enrollment statewide, Act 46 asks small districts to merge into larger, more cost-effective governance structures. Schools with fewer than 900 students must merge by 2019 to be eligible for reduced property tax rates for up to five years.
Wasco, a Georgia resident since 2007, is an attorney at Burlington firm Paul Frank & Collins. He heard about the study committee through the school, where his 3-½-year-old son will attend.
“I need to find some way to get involved with the community,” he told the board.
Woodward, the board’s other pick, is no stranger to public service. After 10 years on the Georgia Selectboard – most recently as chairwoman – and two years as town administrator, Woodward left municipal government last year to return to school for IT programming and employment at Vermont Information Processing in Colchester.
“I love the community, and I love what’s been created here,” the lifelong Georgia resident said.
Woodward looks forward to learning the complex law and how it will impact GEMS, from where her two children graduated to high school and college.
Board members were surprised and grateful for the applicant turnout and said Wasco and Woodward brought relevant skills and diversified experience to the committee.
After the holidays, the committee’s monthly meetings will likely rotate locations between the three schools, Kirsch said.
Board member Kate Barnes encouraged the four other applicants to follow the process and share input, as study committee meetings are public.
A Vt. Agency of Education grant will fund the committee’s work, which will be guided by a neutral third party expert to be determined by Kirsch and the Vermont School Boards Association.
The FWSU study committee is charged with exploring unification options before making a recommendation to the State Board of Education; should that be approved, residents could vote on a ballot item on Town Meeting Day 2017, Kirsch said.
If approved, that would qualify Georgia residents for four years of tax breaks, beginning with 8 cents per dollar of residential property value and dropping 2 cents each subsequent year. The voter-approved plan would be implemented in the 2018 school year.
Act 46 incentivizes schools to expedite the process and vote by July 1, 2016 to be eligible for the full five years of tax breaks, starting with 10 cents. During last week’s board meeting, Westford, Essex and Essex Jct. made history and became the first in the state to vote – by wide margins – to do just that, merging into the Essex Westford Educational Community Unified Union School District, to become operational in 2017.
That takes Westford, a nearby school similar to Georgia in its preK-8 structure with high school choice, off the table for FWSU schools to court, something Kirsch alluded to in an October interview with the Independent.
To maintain school choice – a high priority among Georgia parents – the school will likely have to merge governance with another preK-8 with school choice, Kirsch said. In its yearlong probe, the committee will look at other potential partners still up for grabs.
The Georgia School Board meets next Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. in the GEMS library.