Laughlin: A report grounded in community values, data and mutual respect

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On Nov. 7, the electorate of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney will vote on the formation of a new school district: one that unifies their educational governance structures. This vote is the result of a two years study process as required by a statute based Study Committee and approved by the Vermont Board of Education on Sept. 20.

In the fall of 2015 the Committee was formed, made up of school board members appointed by each school district in the WSESU, and tasked with studying whether it was advisable to prepare a proposal to create a unified PreK-Grade 12 union school district. Finding such a proposal worthy, the Committee intended to have the electorate consider a unified governance board that included Vernon's Town School District. By early 2016, draft Articles of Agreement grandfathering Vernon's 7th to 12th graders school choice for 10 years had been written. (Act 46 did not allow choice and non-choice districts to merge.)

Before these articles could be submitted to the Agency of Education for initial review, Vernon's school board pulled out of the Committee process having determined school choice to be of paramount importance for their community. Thus began a long process for Vernon, and other districts, to address the requirements of Act 46. The committee continued to meet diligently; talking about public education in our communities, goals and hopes for the future, differences and similarities, student outcomes, finances and assets, and how we might work together for the benefit of all our children and communities.

Early in our process, the committee had studied whether there were other options that would fulfill the requirements for complying with Act 46 other than the law's preferred option, a merged district. With additional time available, we reviewed these options again. We engaged our communities in these discussions, at work sessions which are broadcast by BCTV and available online, in one on one meetings, small group conversations, school board meetings and at public information meetings in each community.

Close attention was paid to activities in the Legislature as many anticipated that the constraints of the law, which limited our path to compliance, would be relaxed. The 2016-17 Legislative session passed and with it came the passage of Act 49 that permitted Vernon, and the other districts, a path forward. Act 49, while not providing an off-ramp to Act 46, extended the time frame to present a merger (unified system) consideration to the electorate, one that offered the last opportunity for financial assistance and tax relief, contingent upon a favorable Nov. 7 vote to form a unified school system.

If the Nov. 7 vote passes in each town, there will be homestead school property tax rate reduction during the first four years of operation: 2020 ($.08), 2021 ($.06), 2022 ($.04) and 2023 ($.02). A $150,000 grant to cover transitional operational costs will be granted to the new district and the new district will be allowed to retain small school grants in Guilford and Dummerston. None of this financial assistance will be available to our communities if the merger vote on Nov. 7 fails.

Windham County is not unlike other areas of the state with some residents who strongly disagree with Act 46. Some remain skeptical of the Committee's work and process, Act 46 and its goals and actively do not support the merger vote you will consider. The Committee consistently revisited issues raised by the public. We found that these meaningful discussions translated into a Report and Articles of Agreement that is grounded in community values, data, mutual respect and commitment to all students. It is worthy of consideration by the people and has been unanimously approved by the State Board of Education.

Information can be found at http://www.wssu.k12.vt.us/boards/act46.html. Public informational meetings will be held in all four towns in early November.

Alice Laughlin is the Chair of the WSESU 46 Act Study Committee, Chair of the WSESU board, and Chairwoman of the Putney Town School District Board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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