Act 46 panel reverses course, looks at ‘scenarios’ to save BRHS, meets in Chester tonight

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Last month, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union’s Act 46 Merger Study Committee voted to set aside all but one of the options it had considered and move forward on consolidating into a single district. But by its next meeting – on Jan. 11 – “a cluster” of variations on that option was brought into the process and the committee was back where it began.

Consultant Steve Dale, right, introduces the new scenarios as committee chair Sebastian Frank listens. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

On Dec. 14, the committee had voted for Option 2, which would have created a single school district consisting of Ludlow, Chester, Andover, Cavendish and possibly Baltimore. That option would have allowed Mount Holly to become part of the district that Mill River High is in. The final product would have three elementary schools and a regional high school and regional middle school located in Chester. The vote was 12 -2.

As the Jan. 11 meeting opened in Cavendish, the crowd of 53 heard committee chair Sebastian Frank of Mount Holly say that there was a great deal of ambiguity and confusion among members about what they had voted for in December. Consultant Stephen Dale said the committee’s task for that evening would be to look at a menu of “scenarios” that he referred to as “a cluster of choices” to clarify in their minds what direction they thought the process should take.

A chart containing the five the scenarios was handed out. Briefly, they are:

  • A. Black River High School closes and there would be a regional high/middle school at Green Mountain Union High. Cavendish, Ludlow and Chester-Andover Elementary stay open.
  • B. BRHS building stays open as regional middle school (6-8) and GMUHS becomes the regional high school. Cavendish, Ludlow and Chester-Andover Elementary stay open.
  • C. An entirely new school (yet to be named) is formed with two campuses (Black River Campus and GM Campus) for 7-12. Cavendish, Ludlow and Chester-Andover Elementary stay open.
  • D. Ludlow operates a pre-K-12 school district. GMUHS continues as 7-12 and Cavendish and Chester-Andover Elementary stay open.
  • E. Everything stays the same as it is now except a per-student spending target is established that will limit the projected property tax jump and each school is expected to meet that target.

In addition to the chart, a 27-page color booklet titled  Option #2 Scenario C: One Secondary School Two Campuses was handed out by Black River High School Principal Shannon Martin. There was also a sheet of projected tax implications for each of the scenarios for comparison.

At the heart of the problem before the committee is that the student population of all the schools are shrinking and the State of Vermont is mandating that schools merge to find savings as well as improve educational opportunities for students in smaller schools. Merging all of the individual districts in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union will average per-pupil spending among Black River and Mount Holly, which spend around $17,500 per student, with Green Mountain and Chester-Andover, which spend closer to $14,500 per pupil. This would mean a dramatic rise in property taxes for Chester and Andover residents without much in savings that could be invested in educational opportunities, according to the projected tax implications.

TRSU director of finance Chris Adams, left, answers question on the tax implications of merger scenarios.

TRSU Superintendent Meg Powden made it clear that she favored Scenario C, which could, according to the projections, raise Chester and Andover’s property taxes around 40 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Chris Adams, TRSU director of finance, was less enthusiastic.  “My place is to talk about the money,” said Adams. “If you are spending less there’s more available to spend on your kids.”  Adams said that Scenario C does not reduce staff and that if Mount Holly were to leave, there would be the same expenses but fewer kids “to divide into it.”

In a December interview with The Telegraph, Adams estimated the savings that would result from closing Black River High School in Ludlow, which could be used for more educational opportunities and for stabilizing education property taxes, at $1.4 million.

Proponents of Scenario C, including Martin, pointed to the single unified school board that would result, noting that that board would have the opportunity to make drastic changes in the way education is delivered to students. Martin said that both campuses would offer personalized learning but that each campus would be unique and students could choose that one that fit their needs or use a combination of both. At times the discussions exposed the emotions behind the choices, with one audience member shouting “Don’t kill the Presidents!” referring to Black River athletic teams.

After more than an hour and a half of discussion, Chester representative Bill Dakin moved that the towns of Chester, Andover, Cavendish and possibly Baltimore form a Regional Education District. This would effectively leave Ludlow and Mount Holly to find their own way, while preserving the tax incentives and small school grants for those in the RED.

Powden urged committee members to vote down the motion, saying that by staying together “we can provide some awesome programming.”

Dakin said there had not been much movement on coming to a solution and it was time to “fish or cut bait” but he withdrew his motion in the interest of giving the process another chance. Andover representative Joe Fromberger noted that the committee had been at it for more than a year and said that he needed something that voters in his town could support.  He asked that, if the committee could not agree on an answer,  should the committee dissolve.

Bob Herbst of Mount Holly expresses his concern over talk about tax rates.

Calling it “deplorable,” committee alternate Bob Herbst  of Mount Holly said that the majority of the discussion had been about money instead of what’s best for students. Chester representative Marilyn Mahusky shot back that there had been a lot of discussion of educational opportunities but the committee had to consider what voters would support.

In the end, Dale suggested that the supervisory union fully develop Scenario C with a clear description, budget implications and per-student costs for the next meeting.

In an interview on the day after the meeting, Powden said that the scenarios had arisen from the confusion expressed by committee members at board meetings in Ludlow and Mount Holly.

“After the (Dec. 14) meeting it came to my attention that there was some confusion among the committee members about what they intended their votes to represent,” said Powden. “The options were considered to help clarify their thinking.”

Powden said that she had worked on the scenarios with committee chair Frank of Mount Holly and consultant Dale and that there was no input from committee members from Chester or Andover.  “It was done in consultation with the chair,” said Powden.

Asked where she saw the process going, Powden said, “We are going to try to turn around (the financials) in the short time we have before the next meeting but we are only going to work on version C.

“From my perspective it’s about seeing if the committee can go forward with a single district,” said Powden. “But there will be changes in C. It’s not going to be exactly the same as it was (at the 1/11 meeting) because changes had to be made to meet the per-student target.” That meeting will take place Wednesday Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. at Chester-Andover Elementary School.

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  1. MJ Miles says:

    Sadly, I have asked many involved how they got their financial numbers. No one has a clue. All we have is some forecasted tax rates. What a joke. None are based on financial assessment of cost comparisons of any plan. So guess what, we keep it the same. That will not fly when the state looks at our decisions to do nothing in the face of a mandate. In fact, you can bet they will then take over the decision and we will not like the outcome. Better you make an informed decision now while you can, but then again one can’t even do that given the key word “informed” lacks financial information.

  2. Alonso says:

    It is time for people in Ludlow to realize the population of BRHS is not sustainable and does not provide an adequate education. Take a look at Summit County Colo. One high school for the whole county. That school offers much more than our schools and does much better in national ranking. It also has a very diverse population taking away the argument that income drives our test scores. Regionalizing the middle school in Ludlow and high school in Chester keeps both facilities open and will add transportation costs. The solution needs to be a better education at a more reasonable cost.

  3. tina says:

    Chester’s property taxes go up. Leave it as it is.

  4. Hi Michelle,
    This whole thing has been a bit of a moving target. Option 2 was only ever unifying middle and high schools in Chester. Option 1 was for regional middle school at Black River and regional high school at Green Mountain. At the Baltimore meeting in December 2B was suggested from the floor by the principal of Mt. Holly Elementary attending the meeting as a member of the public. His idea was that the Black River building be kept open as a proficiency learning center. This was not an option put forward by the committee or the administration.

    According to the minutes and an audio recording I made at the meeting this was not discussed and only came up again after the straw vote favored the original Option 2. What seems to happen in these meetings is that the members and the public discuss the options in a free form way and get the features of the options mixed up and since the consultant is trying to keep it open to find a solution, nothing seems to come into sharp focus.
    Hope this clarifies it.

  5. Marilyn Mahusky says:

    Michele, that was actually option 2.b. which did not garner much support from the Chester and Andover members of the study committee. The option described above was option 2.a. As the author states, option 2.a. would save $1.4 million by combining both the middle school and the high school students at the Green Mountain High School campus. It would require closing Black River, an option many residents of Ludlow oppose. Tough decisions.

  6. Michele says:

    You stated that Option 2 would have both middle and high schools in Chester. My understanding is the middle school would be located at Black River in Ludlow. This would be to students grades 6-8.