A proposed merger between Dover, Wardsboro, and Marlboro failed, with Dover voting yes and the other two towns voting no. Windham voted no to a merger with Jamaica, NewBrook, Townshend, and Leland & Gray. The other four school districts will now merge without Windham Elementary.
In Wardsboro, a revote is possible. Per the articles of agreement for the town’s proposed merger with Dover and Marlboro, Wardsboro may revote within 30 days. Wardsboro officials are unsure whether or not a revote will occur.
“We have scheduled another meeting for next week to really get behind this,” said school board member David Sklar. “There are all sorts of ideas right now. We’re kind of back to the drawing board. People are talking about alternative structures, and there has been some discussion about a revote.”
Dover’s fate relies on Wardsboro. If Wardsboro revotes and votes yes, the merger will go forward between Dover and Wardsboro as originally proposed. If not, Dover must decide whether they should pursue a merger with another town or try to get alternative structure designation from the state.
The term “alternative structure” has been used throughout Act 46 discussions and is, under some interpretations, a way for one or more schools to be recognized by the state as being able to provide better opportunity outside the state’s preferred merged structure. However, the state has not defined its criteria that must be met for approval of an alternative structure.
In Marlboro, officials intend to pursue alternative structure status, though how to do so remains unclear.
“We’re looking into exploring alternative structures and what that is, and what the alternates are,” said Marlboro School Board Chair Douglas Korb.
Continuing confusion around alternative structures was highlighted when Rep. Carolyn Partridge provided information that was counter to how many school officials have interpreted Act 46. In Wardsboro, Dover, and Marlboro, it’s been understood that merged districts must have matching operating structures, and that once merged, they would share a governance structure (a school board). That understanding was paramount to the towns’ merger proposal, which would have altered Marlboro’s operating structure to match that of the other two schools and would have merged their school boards.
However, Partridge said that following conversations she had with education consultant, former Vermont School Board Association member, and former Peacham Elementary principal Margaret MacLean, she wasn’t sure that schools with different operating structures couldn’t merge as an alternative structure and maintain their own boards once merged.
“I’ve been talking with Margaret MacLean in Peacham, and she tells me - and she’s pretty much an expert in this - that, for instance, Marlboro, Wardsboro, Dover, and Windham could combine despite the fact (Marlboro is) K-eight and we’re all K-six,” said Partridge. “We could combine and create an alternative governance structure if we wanted to. Everybody would stay as they are in terms of grades, and we would maintain our own boards, formulate our own budgets, and could, because we’re part of the supervisory union, work in conjunction with WCSU so there would be five boards working together.”
Korb said he’s read various drafts of alternative structure rules from the state and didn’t see how four districts could join and maintain their own governance structures.
“An alternative structure is one that is a governance structure,” said Korb, addressing Partridge. “That could be two districts becoming one governance structure, but I don’t see how your take is that there are four districts that could be independent boards in an alternative structure. How did you come to that?”
“That was the advice I received from Margaret MacLean,” said Partridge.
“If what Carolyn is understanding is a real thing, I’d like to hear that from the agency of education as quickly as possible rather than us all spinning our wheels trying to guess what could or couldn’t happen, and then find that certain doors have closed because of timing because we were hoping for something that may or may not be possible,” said Marlboro School Board member Lauren Poster. “If we could form this magical district that (Partridge) just described it would have saved all of us a whole lot of work over the last year.”
As for what to do next, officials expressed a desire for public input, particularly in Wardsboro, where a revote would need to occur with expediency, and Dover, where residents approved a merger and are now left hanging. Dover’s next school board meeting is Monday, March 20, at 6 pm at the school. Wardsboro school officials have set a meeting for March 23 at 6:30 pm at Wardsboro Elementary School. Both meetings are open to the public. In addition, Wardsboro plans to have public informational meetings, which are not yet scheduled.