Surprising itself, TRSU Act 46 panel leans toward merger option

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

After more than a year of looking at the options for school consolidation, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee seemed to surprise itself by backing into a merger option to put before the state Board of Education and the voters of the towns in the union. Some committee members representing Ludlow at the Dec. 6 meeting, held at the Baltimore Town Office, were not pleased.

Act 46 consultant Stephen Dale outlines the work to be done at the meeting Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Act 46 consultant Stephen Dale outlines the work to be done at the meeting Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Consultant Stephen Dale’s brief for the night was to have the group review the options, create a weighted ranking to the criteria for selecting one, look at the property tax implications of each and then discuss the priorities and perspectives of the various communities represented on the committee.

But running short on time for a discussion, Dale asked the committee to rank each of the four options by each criterion. They then multiplied the ranking by the weighting factor and found that seven out of the 12 committee members had picked Option 2 with two other members saying that Option 2 was a close second in their rankings.

Option 2 would dissolve the Black River Union (Black River High and Ludlow and Mt. Holly Elementary) and  Mt. Holly would connect with Mill River.  Three elementary schools (Chester-Andover, Cavendish and Ludlow) would remain, but middle and high schools would unify in Chester at Green Mountain Union High. Click for a detailed description of the options and for a list of the selection criteria.

Both the committee and its consultant seemed surprised by the turn of events, but in accepting the result, Dale asked those who did not vote for Option 2 if there was anything that could be changed in that option to make it more acceptable.

TRSU Director of Finance Chris Adams and Superintendent Meg Powden outline the financial implications of various options

TRSU Director of Finance Chris Adams and Superintendent Meg Powden outline the financial implications of various options

With just one vote for Option 1, the committee soundly rejected a plan put forward by Superintendent Meg Powden and her administrative team that proposed either to

A.) continue to operate as it does now but with one board or

B.) keep the Black River High building open to serve as the regional middle school with children from surrounding towns being bused to Ludlow and all high school classes being bused to Green Mountain. That option also included establishing a “specialty high school program” at Black River as well.

At the beginning of the meeting Powden introduced a new option (#1c) that would create a single secondary school with two campuses – GM and Black River – with the latter being a “personalized proficiency center” where a core group of teachers would guide students “to advocate for the learning they desire.”

Powden said she felt that the Black River campus was a very different school that would be attractive to families, calling it “an amazing campus of learning.”

Several people pointed out that Act 77 mandates that all schools have personalized programs of proficiency based learning and asked how the two campuses would be different and why they would need to be different.

Powden told the meeting that while all the schools are moving toward proficiency based learning, that takes time and that the Black River campus would be staffed by teachers who are excited about the idea and ready to put it into use. It would also have fewer course offerings than Green Mountain.

TRSU after-school coordinator Venissa White characterized the sorts of things that the Black River campus could do as helping kids to find their passions, build their education around them and show what they have learned. But, she added, “at Green Mountain you’re going to sit in a classroom … and the teacher’s guiding that instruction, where in proficiency based personalized learning students say ‘this is what I want to learn about.’ ”

“I’m going to make an observation,” said Dale. “One could read this as – there’s going to be this really exciting great program at Black River and it’s going to be boring at Green Mountain. But what you are deciding here is that Option 1 is a commitment to keep both open two facilities and then you would determine how best to use them.”

Supervisory union business manager Chris Adams reviewed the property tax implications for some of the options, noting that they estimated about $911,000 in education spending savings from Option 1 including the costs of transporting students from town to town.

In Option 2, the new district would lose 148 students, but could save as much as $3.8 million, which would offset the loss. Option 3 would be similar to what is in place now and would not save much in education spending.

Ludlow representative Bruce Schmidt calling the plan "dead on arrival"

Ludlow representative Bruce Schmidt calling the plan dead on arrival.

“It’s dead on arrival. It’s basically closing the school and it’s interesting that even the three Ludlow representatives don’t agree,” said Ludlow representative Bruce Schmidt, reacting to the committee’s preference for Option 2. “To think that their school is going be closed and in two to three months —  they’re going to vote for that? It’s not going to happen.”

Schmidt went on to say that Ludlow could become a ‘choice’ school but that would mean having no representation in education decisions. Heather Tucker of Ludlow suggested using Vail, Colo., as a model and establishing a combination high school and ski academy at Black River as a choice school.

“This is a Ludlow issue and Ludlow has to get it resolved,” said Schmidt.

“If you want to take a vote in April,” said Dale, “you need to take a vote on the general direction at the next meeting. People know what the decisions are, most people know enough … the finances are pretty clear … when you have a small school with a declining enrollment your options get smaller and the per student costs go up. We know what the variables are, it’s a matter of what people are willing to do.”

Two meetings are currently scheduled to be held in January to figure out the details and draft a report to send to the state Board of Education for review  to put it before the voters in April. Depending on how the articles are worded, any one town could scuttle the plan. If however a town is designated as “advisable”rather than “necessary” by the committee, that town’s vote could not stop the plan. An advisable town voting ‘no’ would in effect remove itself from the district while the same town voting ‘yes’ would join the district.

Calling the weighting and ranking exercise “interesting,” committee member Alison DesLauriers thanked Dale, noting that she, like the rest of the committee was thinking of each option by itself rather than in the comparative format.

“I surprised myself,” said DesLauriers.

The formal selection of an option is scheduled for the next meeting of the study committee on Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. at Ludlow Town Hall.

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