HOME PAGE: News - November 24, 2015

A Mix of Thoughts as Merger Talks Proceed

    by Kayla Friedrich & Andrew Martin

   Lamoille North Supervisory Union residents are not happy about being forced by the government to consolidate their schools, but many believe that they have no choice.
    Residents of all six towns in Lamoille North expressed frustration and resignation at informational and community input meetings on a potential merger held over the last two weeks.
    “They…do not appreciate the fact that we either change what we currently have or face penalties from the State,” explained Pierre Laflamme on the concerns of the majority of voters at the meetings. Laflamme is the vice-chair of the committee studying the merger.
    “This is a tough sentiment to overcome and work through as Act 46 is offering us a relatively small ‘carrot;’…What towns are being asked to give up (e.g. local boards, school properties) are concrete and easily grasped,” he continued.
    While they expressed frustration with the state for forcing Act 46 on them and on the state funding for education in general many community members also expressed a desire to take advantage of the tax benefits associated with an accelerated merger before other schools do and Lamoille North is forced to pay for someone else’s tax breaks. A desire to control any transition and merger rather than the state doing so was also widely expressed.

Loss of School Property to Larger District
    The loss of local control of school properties was a main concern at several of the public information meetings. If consolidated, towns will turn school property ownership and all assets and liabilities over to the new unified union for the sum of one dollar.
    This stipulation brought up many concerns for communities that have always used the school buildings as community centers.
    “I believe the largest concern that I have heard is property ownership,” stated Steve Sanborn, who has been hired as a special consultant for the committee studying the merger, “It is difficult for a community like Eden, as an example, where the school is looked at and used as the community center, as well as a school.”
    “When we built this school,” said Eden community member Bruce Burnor, “we told the town it would be a community center. Two of my four sons have had their wedding receptions in this building; we’ve had fundraisers and dances here and all kinds of community events. If you’re telling me that I’m going to have to go to [the new school board] to find out if I can use this building for an anniversary party, I’m telling you that ain’t going to fly in this town.”
    Residents of Belvidere also expressed worry about losing the extensive woodlands that sit behind Belvidere Central School if all school property is transferred to the new district.
    However, at appears that not all the land owned by the Belvidere School District would have to be sold to the new district. Only the school and enough land to provide for parking, a playground, sewage, and other necessary features would need to be sold to the merged district while the rest of the land could remain the property of Belvidere.
    According to Sanborn the community use of buildings has been discussed a number of times by the study committee, and it is his understanding that the committee wants the current use of each building to stay the same regardless of whether the town schools consolidate.
    “The committee doesn’t want to take community use away from the buildings,” he said at the Eden meeting. “So, they are putting language into the agreements to protect this.”
    It is being discussed to add into the articles of agreement that the new school board will adhere to written contracts from each town as to how their buildings will be used.
    Some school buildings, like Eden Central School and Belvidere Central School, are also emergency facilities, and those towns don’t want to lose access to the building for that use either
    To solve this problem Lamoille North business manager Marilyn Frederick proposed that the towns should create a facilities use policy stating that the community will not report to the new school board for access, but rather to the school principal or a building manager.

Effects on Education
    Other community members were not as concerned about the building use or tax incentives, but rather how this would affect their kids.
    “It seems to me all I have heard in this room is about whether we’ll lose the right to have our parties here,” said Eden community member Virginia Mclean. “I feel that we all need to find out what this is going to do to our kids. It’s not about money or the building; it’s about the kids that are here.”
    Consolidation is supposed to make it easier for schools to share resources such as specialists across the district, according to the study committee, because every employee will be contracted with the unified union rather than with individual schools.
     According to Lamoille North Superintendent Beatty, they really want to help all schools have the same learning opportunities and curriculum for the children so that they are all on the same page when they merge together in the middle school.
    With that in mind, Cambridge residents were concerned about losing programs that are not offered across all schools, such as Cambridge Elementary’s gifted and talented program. According to the committee, what’s best for the kids is usually how the school boards vote so, while they can’t guarantee that the program will remain, they don’t see why it wouldn’t just be expanded to all schools.
    Residents of Waterville were also concerned about teacher retention in a larger school district. They feel they have a very team-oriented community at Waterville Elementary and are worried that could change in a bigger district.

    Another major concern expressed at all the meetings was the loss of local control and how communities will be represented in a merged district. The new district will likely be governed by an 18-member board, but some towns would only have one or two representatives on that board and that worries citizens.
    “Board makeup was a major concern in Waterville,” committee member and Waterville resident Becky Penberthy explained, “We would have only one representative.”
    Belvidere would also only have one board member, and Eden would have just two while Hyde Park would have four and Cambridge and Johnson would each have five.
    Residents of Belvidere also expressed concerns about this new board being less accessible than their current three-member board. Superintendent Beatty imagines that although there will be one consolidated school board, each town could also have an advisory board to relay individual town concerns to the official district board.

What’s Next?
    The committee studying the merger in Lamoille North will next meet on November 30. They should be finalizing the articles of agreement at that time as well as approving a draft of the final report and plan that will be presented to the Agency of Education for approval.
    If the agency approves the draft report from Lamoille North then the document will be presented to the Vermont State Board of Education for approval in January. The approval of the plan and report by the board of education means that the residents of the six towns in the supervisory union will have the final say on whether or not to approve the merger.
    A tentative date for the vote has been set for April 12, 2016. More informational meetings are planned for Lamoille North once the articles of agreement have been created, and each town will also hold a warned hearing 10 days prior to the vote in April.

This Week's Photos

Last Friday, November 20, students from the Bishop John A. Marshall School packed Thanksgiving boxes for distribution by Lamoille Community Food Share.  - Martin photo

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