Four TRSU towns look to merge; Ludlow, Mt. Holly seek ‘Plan B’

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

TRSU Finance Director Chris Adams, left, explains the numbers behind Scenario C. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

After presentations on the scenario recommended by its superintendent and often emotional but inconclusive discussions of the plan, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee voted to allow Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester to study forming a Regional Education District (RED) within TRSU. That subcommittee will meet Tuesday, Jan. 24 in Andover rescheduled its meeting to Tuesday, Jan. 31 in Andover.

(In light of that, the Ludlow and Mount Holly subcommittee will meet tonight, Jan. 25.)

TRSU Finance Director Chris Adams walked the committee through a draft document comparing the current faculty configuration with a proposal that would eliminate 4.97 full-time equivalent positions for an expected savings of $381,223.

Under this Scenario C, the names of the two high schools would be dropped in favor of one new name and co-curriculars – like sports teams – would be combined so there would be savings in eliminating duplicate coaching as well as other support and central office expenses which might add another $335,000 to the plus column.

Adams also noted that there would be extra expenses like transportation which he estimated at $282,500, which reduces the net savings of Scenario C down to $433,723. In the past, Adams has estimated a savings of $1.4 million by closing Black River High and unifying the middle and high schools at Green Mountain Union High.

In previous meetings, Adams has emphasized that the less that has to be spent, the more savings are available for educating kids. But on this night, Adams said, “Financially it doesn’t make sense to jump in when the costs…” He then paused and added, “That’s your decision, I’ll stay out of it.”

Benefits to students questioned

Black River High Principal Shannon Martin describes the potential advantages of Scenario C.

Black River High School Principal Shannon Martin presented a diagram showing the programs that a two campus school could – and in some cases – already does offer.

Martin told the committee that programs could include dual-enrollment courses for which students get both college and high school credit. These are already offered at Black River but students take them off-site.

Under Scenario C, Martin envisioned those teaching college level courses on site.  Martin also pointed to the possibility of BRHS becoming a satellite college campus operated by Castleton University, of a partnership with the Upper Valley Educators Institute to offer courses there and of a hospitality program offered in conjunction with Okemo Mountain.

The diagram also noted the programs that are or could be offered at Green Mountain. “It’s an attempt to look over the horizon,” said GM Principal Tom Ferenc. Being together in a single union would make these programs available to all the students in the system with at least three bus runs between the campuses each day.

Chester Act 46 board representative Alison DesLauriers said that the proposals on the diagram for Green Mountain are already happening, then asked what’s new for GM students for the increased costs.

“It wouldn’t benefit taxpayers, so it really has to benefit GM students,” DesLauriers said.

“It would open what’s great about Ludlow to GM students,” said Martin.

Emotions occasionally ran high. At various times during the evening, audience members – including TRSU teachers and administrators – shouted their feelings while some committee members described themselves as being “in the weeds.”

Dale’s three options

Consultant Steve Dale tells the committee they have three choices and should vote.

After more discussion, consultant Steve Dale – who had not participated as much as he had in earlier meetings – told the committee that they had three options:

  1. Create a unified school district from all the towns with two high school campuses and hope the new board and staff could create an efficient outcome, but with little room for financial savings.
  2. Release Mount Holly and close Black River High, which would free up enough money to do the things the committee wants to do, but realize that student transportation is an issue.
  3. Let Chester, Andover, Cavendish and possibly Baltimore united for a RED within TRSU while Ludlow and Mount Holly work on a “Plan B” which could involve joining the RED in the future.

“Those are the three worlds you are in, and you should vote on them,” said Dale.

Chester resident Randy Miles suggested that since Ludlow is geographically central to the SU, a new high school should be built there.

“It’s only money,” quipped Dale.  School Planning and Management’s 20th Annual School Construction Report estimated new high school construction in 2014 at $49,000 per student, or about $25 million for a student capacity of 500.

“You have the heavy task of representing all the students,” Martin told the committee. “I beg you to make it for all the kids – they are yours – figure it out.”

Mount Holly Elementary Principal Craig Hutt Vater asked the committee not to vote but rather to give the Supervisory Union another week to find more savings in operating under Scenario C.

Dale said he thought the committee had plenty of information to make a decision by June 30 to take advantage of the tax incentives offered by the state. “If it’s about the date, fine,” said Dale. “If it’s about the leap, someday you’ll have to take the leap.”

Chester representative Alison DesLauriers moves for Chester, Andover, Cavendish and Baltimore to see if they can form a Regional Education District.

After still more discussion of options, DesLauriers moved that the committee allow representatives of the towns of Chester, Andover, Cavendish and Baltimore to study forming a RED.

“We need to move forward,” said DesLauriers. “Andover needs to not miss that date and Ludlow, too.” She said delaying would cause those schools to lose their  hold-harmless protections for shrinking student populations in the school funding formula.  “We need some action.”

The question of whether the committee should just disband and reform as separate committees was debated.

“Once you get out, it’s really hard to get back in,” said Ludlow representative Bruce Schmidt, “so I think we should be sure our communities really want to be out. I’m not excited about this motion, but I know we have to keep moving forward.”

After a brief discussion, the motion was approved overwhelmingly and the committee quickly adjourned.

“It’s late, but the task of the sub-committee isn’t enormous,” said Dale in an interview on Friday. “You have to remember that these towns have had unified operations with each other for 50 years. They can decide if they are a part of it and map it out in a few weeks. They might miss the February State Board of Education meeting and it may be the March meeting now, but I expect it will move along.” Approval of a plan by the State Board of Education is required before it can go to a public vote.

Also on Friday, DesLauriers said that she felt like the process was “coming out of the weeds.”

Once an agreement is hammered out, and before it can go to the Board of Education, the full committee will have to sign off on it. But that would probably not be a  large stumbling block since the RED towns hold a majority. While the sub-committee is holding its meetings, Dale expects that Ludlow and Mount Holly will be working to come up with plan to put before their voters.

“Doing nothing is an option,” said Dale, “but not a good one.”

The next meeting, where a RED will be discussed, will be held  at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Jan. 24 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31 at Andover Town Hall, 953 Weston-Andover Road.

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