Commentary: Alternative to merging vs. merger alternatives

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Act 46 provides for an alternative to merging. It is called an Alternative Governance Structure. It is defined as: A Supervisory Union, with member districts; that provides for Pre-K-12 education for all its students; maximizes its operation efficiently; has the smallest number of districts practicable and serves not less than 1,100 students.

Sound familiar? It should because that's us, the Windham Southeast Supervisiory Union....a governance structure that has worked very well for this District for many years. Now that enrollment numbers are declining and costs have continued to climb, the state is asking districts to consolidate in order to save money and make it easier to provide more affordable programming to students where needed.

Discussions about Act 46 finally found their match at this year's town meetings. After attending the one in my home town of Dummerston, I watched both the one from Putney and the one from Guilford on BCTV and saw how Act 46 created some confusing exchanges over the responsibilities of the Study Committee and those of the School Boards.

While the confusion may still be lingering in some people's minds, it might be helpful to try and shed some light on what I believe has led to this confusion. In all three local Town Meetings earlier this month there was an Article added to the Town Warnings asking the School Board in each town to explore the possibility of an alternative to merger as another way to achieve the stated goals of Act 46: to create more educational opportunities for children and to lower costs for taxpayers.

The confusion, I think, resulted from voters trying to understand the charges of the two groups. The Study Committee's responsibility, from the beginning, has been to explore merger alternatives, different types of mergers: the Preferred Model, the Conventional, the Modified (MUUD), the Regional (REDs)...all different combinations of ways for districts to merge.

The charge in the Warning Article asking the School Board to explore alternatives to merging really was to focus on the Alternative Governance Structure (AGS) which, ironically, is our current form of governance but, under the law, has become the basic alternative to merging. Exploring this option, by statute, falls under the purview of the School Boards so it is not something that the Study Committee has ever had the authority to investigate or consider.

At each of the Town Meetings I noticed that School Board/Study Committee members from each town commented to voters that they had explored all options. They were talking about merger options....not options to a merger. The latter could only come from the School Boards working together in a collaborative, bottom up effort to show how the goals could be met without merging.

A conversation about what other alternatives there might be to merging and losing our school boards is something many of us have wanted to have from the beginning.

The Alternative Governance Structure is provided for in the Law and it is the structure that has worked very well for our District for many years.

It would require some modification in order to allow for some of the necessary functions but many, if not all, of the minimal cost savings relative to our new consolidated annual budget (roughly 0.3 percent on $57M) could be achieved under our current governance structure.

Those of us who have been in favor of exploring this option have not been able to convince the Study Committee to consider any such alternative either through a sub-committee, as was done in some communities, or by inviting members of the public to come up with suggestions and provide an opportunity to have a wider conversation.

I think this needs to happen before any decision is made about how best to meet the goals of Act 46.

Richard Virkstis lives in Dummerston. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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