Education, District Consolidation Discussions Planned For Town Meeting

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(Host) Hard economic times, shrinking student populations and rising costs have put pressure on school districts to merge and consolidate.

Only one district actually has merger on the ballot.

But as VPR’s Susan Keese reports, the prospect of restructuring education will be a topic of discussion at many town meetings.

(Keese) The five towns in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union have been talking since 2003 about turning their separate school districts into one.

Tom O’Brien is the Addison Northwest Superintendent. He thinks the merger could help save the area’s small local schools.

(O’Brien) "What it does is reduce the number of times we do any given thing like payroll or audits or budgets."

(Keese) But the issue has been emotional, and O’Brien says he wouldn’t be surprised to see another recall vote this year, which happened last year. That’s despite the fact that the Legislature added a new incentive last year to encourage such economies of scale – a four-year reduction in homestead taxes.

The law will also assure that merger possibilities are discussed in many towns this year. It required all 60 supervisory unions to consider the benefits and challenges of mergers and report to the state whether they wanted to go forward.

Winton Goodrich is with the Vermont State School Boards Association. He says half of the state’s supervisory unions have opted to seriously study the issue.

(Goodrich) "It’s purely a voluntary merger legislation. The decision gets left to local voters. That’s what’s different from what I’ve heard over the past decade."

(Keese) The law also promises districts that restructure that no local schools will be closed for at least four years after a merger agreement is signed.

But some schools are feeling pressure from the state. When the tiny Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union in Arlington and Sandgate lost its superintendent last year, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca exercised a little-used option.

He allowed the union to hire an interim superintendent and gave the schools a spring 2011 deadline to decide between merging with larger supervisory unions to the north or to the south.

Todd Wilkens chairs the Arlington School Board.

(Wilkins) "In our opinion that’s an extremely unfair time frame to give us to do a study. And also to us he’s limited our choices because he hasn’t done a study himself to say that those are our best options."

(Keese) Two other supervisory unions, Rutland Windsor and Washington South, are in similar situations.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

Visit VPR’s Town Meeting Day page for full coverage

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