“This is the first time we’ve gotten the secretary’s recommendation to take no action to approve,” said state board of education chair Krista Huling, speaking at the state board of education’s meeting at Montpelier High School. Holcombe said she would support whatever outcome the state board agreed to, and that she wanted to ensure that a “robust conversation” would be had around the issue.
“I am increasingly concerned about the fiscal situation in the state, and I feel it would be irresponsible not to have this conversation here,” said Holcombe. “I need people to understand that the factors that led to Act 46 are still there. There are still declines in enrollment. We need to make sure we are approaching the towns to educate our children in a way that provides and ensures that every child has access to sustainable opportunities. I believe these situations have to be local. I believe there are places where it works and places where it’s a challenge, and that that the solution has to involve local communities. That said, I’m not willing to put blinders on and pretend we don’t have these issues. We’re looking at finding $90 million in savings. I cannot lie to you and tell you that the situation is not tough, because you need to be aware of that and go in with eyes wide open. We need to be clear about what our challenges are so that the solutions we create will benefit kids.”
The 2-2-1 structure was created under Act 49 and provides a pathway to Act 46 compliance that had not existed in the original legislation. One benefit under the structure is release of the threat of being forced into a merger when, at the impending conclusion of the voluntary merger period, the state makes its own merger recommendations.
Under that statewide plan, a school cannot be forced to change its operating structure, and previously merged towns cannot be forced to take a new school into their district without a positive vote of their voters. In the secretary’s recommendation, she said it was unlikely, therefore, that Marlboro would be forced into a merger with another school, given a lack of “willing/available” districts with similar operating structures. She went on to say that the “only significant result of approving the 2-2-1 structure… is that the state board will appear to be approving — even if temporary — the Marlboro School District’s membership in the Windham Central Supervisory Union.” The Marlboro School District is currently a member of WCSU.
“Approval of this request has two potential effects,” aid Donna Russo-Savage, of the agency of education. “One is that the district of Marlboro will receive early assurance that the state board will not be merging their governance structure as part of a statewide plan. And it will also be given at least tentative approval that, at least for the time being, these three districts will be part of the same supervisory union. Even if you approve this, you have not given up your statutory authority to change supervisory union boundaries anytime you want.”
In his opening statements to the state board of education, Marlboro School Board chair Douglas Korb said he and his board recognized that the state still may change supervisory union lines and approving the school’s plan would not change that, but that the school has been in limbo for too long.
“We’ve worked really hard at this for the last two years while operating the school in a semi-vacuum,” said Korb, “so to come here today and feel there’s going to be no action, you’re extending that vacuum.”
Steven Dale, who was the Marlboro School Board’s consultant throughout the proposal-writing process, said, “(A yes vote) does not preclude you, two years from now after dust has settled, to say we want to realign supervisory unions. But it would give them the certainty that for the next year to two years, they can move forward within the context of WCSU.”
Rich Werner, chair of the Dover School Board, the Windham Central Supervisory Union Board, and the Act 46 Study Committee that led to the creation of the River Valleys Unified School District, said the supervisory union has been working harmoniously together for years and that it seemed the secretary didn’t want to give “false hope” that they could permanently continue to do so. “I think you need to prove and show that we have done the right work,” said Werner. “Even if you give us false hope. There’s no certainty anyway.”
Several board members weighed the potential consequences of approval of the plan. “Looking at the 2-2-1 arrangement, there seems to be a sentiment that it makes sense that in the future life when we are looking at alternative structures, we are not likely to come up with something different than that,” said state board member John Carroll. “At a future time however, we might have some reservations about supervisory union alignment.” Carroll said he would like to make a motion that recognized those potential future reservations, and he and Russo-Savage began working on language for a motion.
Meanwhile, state board member John O’Keefe said he thought the secretary’s recommendation was brave, and Huling noted that the recommendation from the secretary was significant. “It is telling, because everything else has said yes, let the local people decide.”
O’Keefe said that even if the board was ultimately going to approve Marlboro’s proposal, the recommendation should be acknowledged through a motion and vote. “This board should send a message, not to Marlboro, but to the state at large, that we are taking this seriously.”
O’Keefe introduced a motion, for which he was the only yea. Carroll then introduced a motion to approve the 2-2-1 structure while “recognizing that the state board retains authority to adjust supervisory union boundaries.” Carroll’s measure passed.
With the approval from the state board of education, the Marlboro School Board must now take its proposed structure to its voters, which by law must happen by November 30.
If approved by Marlboro voters, under the 2-2-1 structure, Marlboro would remain unmerged and would have its own school board, existing as a single district within the Windham Central Supervisory Union alongside the newly formed River Valleys Unified School District and West River Modified Union Education District. Because Marlboro would remain its own district, it would not be required to change its operating structure as it would have had to if it had joined the River Valleys Unified School District, in which it would have shared a district with Dover and Wardsboro.
In the 2-2-1 structure, Marlboro is in compliance with Act 46, but it remains unmerged, which means it will not receive tax incentives laid out in the original legislation, including retention of the small school grant through its conversion to a merger grant. Instead, Marlboro will have to apply annually for its small school grant, which in the future will be awarded based on a school meeting two criteria: small class size in addition to either geographic isolation status or academic excellence status with the state.