The format of the meeting was the same as the Marlboro meeting that preceded it, with committee members presenting information in three sections: educational opportunity, tax impact, and process. At the end of each of the three sections, a question and answer period was held, during which meeting attendees were asked to submit questions anonymously in writing.
Facilitator Felicity Ratté closed the question and answer period for the educational opportunity section of the presentation by reading a question she felt the committee should take some time to mull over.
“If the state wasn’t pushing consolidation, would any of the three boards see advantages to doing so?”
Ratté told the committee to give some thought to the question, and then brought it back into discussion later in the evening. Although most committee members said that they thought the discussions they’ve had as a result of the law have been fruitful, many said their perception was that their school boards would not have independently pursued the merger if Act 46 hadn’t been in play.
“I would say no,” said WCSU Act 46 Study Committee committee member, Dover school board vice chair, and state representative Laura Sibilia. “I do not believe that the board I’ve sat on for 14, 15 years would have done this.”
“The short answer of course is no,” said Chip Vicary, member of the WCSU Act 46 Study Committee and the Dover School Board. “If the state had not forced Act 46 on us, no, we probably wouldn’t have been engaged in these discussions.”
Rich Werner, chair of both the Dover School Board and the WCSU Act 46 Study Committee, said yes, pointing out that Dover has engaged in discussion about mergers before, noting that several years ago, Dover entered into discussion with Whitingham and Wilmington about a possible joint school district. “And just a few years ago we met with Wardsboro to see if we could possibly hire a principal together,” said Werner. “We in Dover have always been looking for ways that we could save money, maybe get bigger bang for our buck.”
Another question posed was whether Dover has a backup plan should the merger not be voted in the affirmative at Town Meeting. The question read, “The apathetic response from Dover residents needs to be interpreted as we don’t really care and our school board will recommend the right choice. What is Plan B?”
“I can tell you that in Dover, the discussion we’ve had is that if this gets voted down, or if the other side doesn’t come on board, we will look to do an alternative structure,” said Werner. “If the voters say no, we don’t want to combine with anybody, and they vote that way overwhelmingly, we’ll go to the state and ask for an alternative structure. But we’re going to ask for some public input, because we’re going to need a lot of support when we go to Montpelier.”
WCSU Act 46 Study Committee member Randy Capitani, of Dover, also commented, noting that Dover residents who are apprehensive about a merger shouldn’t count on the possibility of keeping things as they are now.
“I think it’s really important to realize that the one thing that won’t happen is it won’t be life as usual, or it won’t be the school the way it was five years ago,” said Capitani. “It’s just the reality of where the state is headed.”
Schools that have not merged and have not been approved as alternative structures will be evaluated by the state and may be merged with other schools. At that point, the individual schools will not have a say as to whom they are merged with.
“I’m not a big fan of Act 46,” said Capitani. “But I do think this gives us a good way to control our own fate. The other side of this is that we don’t know what would happen. (The state) could put us in with another group, and that’s something to really consider. It’s tough to comprehend something that is so nebulous at this point. You can’t predict the future. This is not a concrete road map to where things are going to be. It’s just a road map to set off in a certain direction. And if we don’t go in that direction, there’s still going to be a lot of hard work ahead. There’s going to be a committee that’s going to have to set up an alternative structure; whether it’s with another district or on our own, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Whether you vote yes or no on this one, this is not going away by any stretch of the imagination.”
Later in the meeting, prompted by a submitted question, Werner said that Dover has not yet begun to explore how it would pursue alternative structure approval if the town votes down the merger on Town Meeting Day.
“We’re not there yet,” said Werner.
The WCSU Act 46 Study Committee will be holding three more informational meetings before the merger goes to vote at Town Meeting. All meetings are at 6:30 pm and are scheduled for Thursday, February 2, at Wardsboro Town Hall; Monday, February 13, at Marlboro School; and Monday, February 27, at Dover Town Hall.