The board’s stated support came in the form of a motion introduced by board member Dwight Boerem.
Before introducing the motion, Boerem said, “The school board has your best interest at heart, and I certainly am in favor of (the merger).”
The motion passed unanimously toward the end of a lengthy meeting anchored by a presentation from Donna Russo-Savage and Brad James of the Agency of Education. During the presentation, Russo-Savage explained the options Wardsboro has under Act 46. Wardsboro may merge voluntarily, or it may submit a proposal to remain an independent entity under Section 9 of the law. The acceptance of such a proposal has been referred to in many local Act 46 discussions as being approved as an “alternative structure.”
A major aspect of the law is tax incentives that are incorporated within it, which are tied to specific timelines. There is pending legislation, S. 122, that could change those timelines. Currently, however, in order to receive the tax incentives of Act 46, a school must voluntarily merge by July 1 or submit an alternative structure proposal by November 30 and have that proposal approved. If a school does merge or its alternative structure proposal is not approved, it will lose access to the law’s tax incentives and it may still be merged with another district in an eventual statewide plan.
Russo-Savage said that she doesn’t know what the state will do, but in the event that Wardsboro does not voluntarily merge and is not approved as an alternative structure, it’s possible that the state could require Dover and Wardsboro to merge in the statewide plan, since they are contiguous and have the same K-6 operating structure. In that scenario, neither school would receive its small schools grant, as retention of the grant is one of the tax incentives outlined in the law.
Douglas Korb, chair of the Marlboro School Board, questioned the states’s decision to withhold small schools grants from districts that do not voluntarily merge or do not have an approved Section 9 proposal.
“Doesn’t that just do the anthesis of what the law is intended to do?” asked Korb. “It will take money away from schools, which will then hurt schools even more by taking away the funding. The small schools grant is significant for Wardsboro.”
“An argument can be made that yes, that’s the case,” said James. “An argument that can also be made is, why is everybody else in the state helping you keep a small school? Because that’s essentially what’s happening.”
James said that the legislature initially introduced the small schools grant in a different educational environment than we have today when some small schools are “incredibly small.” James said that when a town’s school gets a small schools grant, it lowers that town’s tax rate, but the state education fund still has the same demand. “So the base tax rate, or however you want to look at it, has to go up slightly for everybody,” said James.
When the board spoke about its position on the merger toward the end of the meeting, board member Mike Murphy said that he had previously been hesitant to share his opinion but was now willing to comment.
“I’m scared time’s going to run out,” said Murphy. “I feel that we put good protections (in the articles of agreement) for Wardsboro. And I support it. I don’t think we have a viable alternative before we’re forced (into a merger by the state).”
The meeting was not without tense moments. Discussion became heightened when several attendees pointed to the proposed articles of agreement to challenge Russo-Savage after she said no school would be closed without the voters of its own town voting to do so.
“It states that the board has the right to refuse services to our school,” said Kathy Anderson. “If the board refuses services to our school, we have no option anyway.”
Anderson was referring to Article 8 Section B of the articles of agreement, which can be read at http://wcsu-committee.blogspot.com.
Article 8 is titled “Real and Personal Property.” The text in the referenced section reads, in part, “In the event that … the Unified District Board of Directors determines, in its discretion, that continued possession of real property, including land and buildings, conveyed to it by one or more town forming districts will not be used in direct delivery of student educational programs, the district shall offer for sale such real property.”
Several attendees said they felt the verbiage meant the school board could, at its discretion, stop using the building for delivery of educational services. Russo-Savage said that underlying statute says that a school cannot be closed without its voters electing to close it, and referred to Article 15 of the articles of agreement.
“It says very clearly in Article 15 that only the electorate of the town in which the school is located can close a school,” said Russo-Savage. “And closure is specifically defined as it is no longer using the facility for direct education of its students. So it’s not even that the school board could say they want to use it as a central office or as anything other than a school for your kids. It doesn’t have that power. It’s only the electorate of the Town of Wardsboro that can say this building is no longer going to be used for direct instruction.”
Several people asked Russo-Savage to read Article 8 aloud, which she did. After doing so, Russo-Savage said that what was outlined in Article 8 would only occur after, as outlined in Article 15, the town voted to close the school.
“I beg to differ,” said John Moran. “You keep tying it into Article 15 and it’s not. It’s a stand-alone article.”
“I don’t agree with you,” said Russo-Savage. Russo-Savage clarified that the articles need to be read all together. “I think section 8 could have been drafted more clearly, but I think if you read both of them together and look at the titles of the articles, that is the way I would interpret it.”
Russo-Savage said that voters would need to read the articles and decide what they believed.
Wardsboro will hold one more public informational meeting on the matter before the May 1 reconsideration vote. The meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 24, at 6:30 pm at Wardsboro Town Hall.