TRSU Act 46 study panel reboots, takes comments on merger proposal

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

After nearly a year of meetings focusing on planning, finance, property and governance, the Act 46 study committee for Two Rivers Supervisory Union has – in effect – gone back to the drawing board and started over.

Last night in Ludlow, the committee outlined what it was looking for in a merger plan during a meeting that was intending to take 30 minutes of public comment followed by a two-hour meeting. In fact, the board listened to about two hours of comments from the nearly 30 people in attendance.


About 30 gathered in Ludlow on Tuesday night to hear about the merger proposal, to ask questions and to comment. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

The crowd was reacting to the committee’s proposal to form a single school district that would keep the existing four elementary schools in place while moving all middle school students (6 through 8) to Black River High in Ludlow and all high school students to Green Mountain Union High in Chester.

Among the aims that the committee had for the plan were making the area more attractive for families with children to move here. But one parent thought it could have the opposite effect. Jenn Shepard of Ludlow said that she would like to see a survey of parents who would leave rather than send their kids to Green Mountain.

“We’ll sell the house and leave,” said Shepard, describing her husband’s reaction. Shepard said that parents she spoke with at a Mt. Holly soccer game expressed similar sentiments.

Several study committee members assured Shepard that the proposal  is one plan and that they are not on board with it yet. Members added that if the public wanted to put it to the voters on Town Meeting Day in March 2017, its complexities need to be worked out by the end of December.

Saying that he had recently moved to the area, Paul Orzechowski told the committee that he thought that Ludlow was the center of the district and that both the high school and middle school should be in Ludlow with the Green Mountain campus being re-purposed as a community college or an adult learning center. “This (consolidation) is what the state wants,” said Orzechowski. “Maybe they could help.”

Mariel Meringolo, who is a Ludlow Elementary board member and head of the Okemo Mountain School, asked how a town becomes a “school choice” town. Consultant Stephen Dale explained that if a town wanted to have “school choice” for high school, that town would have to give up its own high school, which could be a complicated thing. Several audience members got behind the idea of  Black River High becoming a private, independent school.

Mariel Meringolo asking how Ludlow could become a 'school choice' town.

Mariel Meringolo asking how Ludlow could become a ‘school choice’ town.

Committee member Alison DesLauriers noted that the parents of 6 through 8 graders in Chester, where there is a 21st century school with a beautiful campus and up-to-date facilities, might not want to send them to the aging Black River High building.

With the possibility of kids spending many hours on buses to make the proposal work, transportation loomed large as a component of the plan, and in one of the evening’s lighter moments, it was proposed that students from Mt. Holly to Chester travel by rail rather than bus.

There were also voices in support of the proposed merger. Venissa White who described herself as a Chester taxpayer, a mother of five students and a TRSU employee, asked everyone to look at the opportunities.

“If your kids find their passion, it’s worth the drive,” said White, “Think big, what else can we be, what else can we do. It’s scary, but change can be good.”

More meetings of the Act 46 study committee are scheduled. See below for list.

How did we get here – the reboot

In the spring of 2015, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 46 to consolidate schools, save money and give students throughout the state more of the educational opportunities enjoyed by those attending larger schools. The law has both enticements and penalties designed to push the complex process forward, and the representatives of the Two Rivers schools got to work in the fall of that year, looking for a plan. The physical and governance make up of the Two Rivers Union is uniquely complex and by the spring, the study committee was – as one member described it – “in the weeds.”

Over the summer, Two Rivers saw the retirements of long-term leaders Bruce Williams and Linda Waite and the arrival of new Superintendent Meg Alison Powden. The SU did not renew the contract of Diana Watson, the facilitator who got the study under way in November of 2015 and hired former Vermont Association of School Boards executive director Stephen Dale to guide the board through its deliberations going forward.


Consultant Stephen Dale, standing, begins the meeting with an overview of Act 46 and an explanation of where the study committee is in the process

While Dale was introduced at the Sept. 6 study committee meeting, he already was well-known to many as a consultant who, in 2012 and 2013, helped create the Two Rivers Supervisory Union with towns from the Windsor Southwest and Rutland Windsor Supervisory unions.

Dale said that the lack of a quorum at that meeting might be related to the Labor Day holiday,  but noted that it could also be a sign of “process fatigue.” Dale told the group that it would be “challenging” to revitalize a process that didn’t draw a quorum and, before launching into a lengthy explanation of his understanding of Act 46, he told the group that whatever they did, they must seek consensus.

“You don’t want 7 to 6 votes or 7 to 8 votes,” he said.

At its Sept. 20 meeting, the TRSU Act 46 Study Committee adopted a new mission, narrowing the work from examining the “benefits and challenges” of various “governance structures” and “identifying viable options for forming an unified union school district” to  “studying the advisability of forming a union school district.” The new charge also leaves out the list of participating schools and the desired outcomes.

Since then, the discussions have centered around a proposal put forward by Powden at the request of the committee. With her administrative team, Powden suggested that TRSU towns form one district with a single board. That new district would have four elementary schools, one 6 through 8 middle school and one 9 through 12 high school. The middle school would be in the Black River High School building Ludlow while the 9 through 12 grades would be at Green Mountain High School in Chester and students would be bused between communities.

Cutting costs and raising taxes

Savings from such a change would come from cutting staff costs by eliminating duplicate teaching positions and by increasing class size. Transportation would cut into those savings but, according to projections by TRSU staff, the savings would not reduce taxes. In fact, even with the tax incentives for merging schools that were baked into the Act 46 legislation, those five-year projections show Chester and Andover seeing steady increases up to 37 cents. During that same time, Ludlow and Mt. Holly would see tax decreases at first, then overall increases of 10 and 7 cents respectively.

These differences have to do with the fact that Ludlow and Mt. Holly spend more per student than Green Mountain Union High or Chester-Andover Elementary schools. Merging low spending schools with higher spending schools averages out the spending and arrives at one tax rate that penalizes taxpayers from the lower spending schools while rewarding taxpayers from the higher spending schools.

Another option

Because of the spending disparity, some members of the committee have suggested that the towns of Andover, Cavendish, Chester and possibly Baltimore could form a Regional Education District (or RED.)  That would leave Mt. Holly and Ludlow free to pursue other options including school choice for some grades. The RED would remain part of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union. On Oct. 25, Plymouth School Board member Rebecca Geary notified the SU that that town would be exploring a connection with the Windsor Central Supervisory Union.

At a previous meeting, committee chair Sebastian Frank of Mt. Holly acknowledged that some members are not on board with the merger but asked them to set aside their objections and “pretend” they are in favor of the merger while they work on the details hoping to find enough give and take to reach a consensus on an draft agreement.  Even with every committee member pretending they agree, it will be up to the voters of the towns to decide whether or not to accept any of their recommendations and even then, the Agency of Education must pass on the final plan.

All of the committee’s meetings are open to the public with an opportunity for comment.

Upcoming meetings include:

  • Wednesday Nov. 16 at the Mount Holly School, 150 School St., Mt. Holly.
  • Tuesday Dec. 6 meeting at the Baltimore Town Office, 1902 Baltimore Road, Baltimore
  • Wednesday Dec. 14 meeting at Black River High School, 43 Main St., Ludlow
  • Thursday Dec. 1 at Green Mountain Union High School, 716 Rt. 103 south, Chester. This will be a joint board meeting of all the towns, meant to be a “retreat” for the study group.

All meetings are scheduled for 6 p.m.

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  1. Sebastian Frank says:

    This is a very nicely written article about a difficult topic. I hope we can get even more people engaged, agitated, excited, angry, whatever, about this very consequential law. Thank you Mr. Cunningham — hopefully you can make it to Mount Holly on the 16th.