Four TRSU schools move forward on RED, old options crop up

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017  Telegraph Publishing LLC

While the purpose of last Tuesday’s Act 46 sub-committee meeting was to pull together a proposal to form a Regional Education District — or RED — among the towns of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester, the question of what happens to Ludlow and Mount Holly followed the group to the Andover Town Hall.

Sub-committee chair, Alison DesLauriers gives a rundown of what has happened to date. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

An audience of about 40 got a quick primer on the school consolidation law and what had happened in negotiations to date from sub-committee chair Alison DesLauriers. Then the panel got down to reviewing a draft report prepared by consultant Steve Dale.

The report is the mechanism by which the school districts agree to merge and it must be approved by the State Board of Education before it can go to the voters of the constituent towns. Every town deemed “necessary” by the study committee must vote yes for the plan to go forward. Those towns considered “advisable” can join the merger with a yes vote. If an advisable town votes no, it must find another merger partner or the state will find one for it.

Consultant Steve Dale explains how the RED came to be.

Dale explained how the 16-month-old study committee had become stymied by the situation in which merging with Black River High School and keeping it open would dramatically raise tax rates for other towns in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, while closing BRHS is not acceptable to residents of Ludlow. The RED was seen as a way for four of the towns to make the state-imposed deadlines for keeping small school grants and the hold-harmless that lessens the tax impact of large declines in student population from year to year.

The committee got through more than 15 pages of mostly boilerplate with only minor, constructive tweaks until reaching the “advisable districts” in the Articles of Agreement. That’s when TRSU Superintendent Meg Powden announced that another district might be interested in being advisable. That district was Ludlow.

Ludlow committee representative member Bruce Schmidt, center, tells the sub-committee “We in a tough spot.”

Study Committee member Bruce Schmidt said it was not certain that Ludlow and Mt. Holly would get anywhere with the other scenarios they were pursuing and needed an option in case they didn’t.

He said he came to the meeting to propose some ideas – conditions – that could be necessary for Ludlow to become part of the RED. Schmidt said a larger student population meant an increase in educational opportunities for all. He added that, in this situation, Mount Holly would be leaving, putting Ludlow in danger of losing its elementary school as well. Among the ideas Schmidt proposed were:

  • Joining the RED prior to June 30, 2020
  • That Ludlow be considered for board representation at the original level proposed
  • Ludlow would get whatever remained of the four-year tax incentives when it joins the RED.
  • That Ludlow would be willing to discuss freezing its debt at 2018 levels
  • That the RED would provide enhanced after-school transportation so Ludlow students could fully participate in sports and other activities
  • That Ludlow facilities would be used for some activities like sports, meetings, concerts, drama, etc.

DesLauriers noted that for Ludlow to be a part of the RED, the articles of agreement would have to include a successful closing of BRHS.

“We would not be asking for a second campus,” said Schmidt. “The sub-committee thought we should have an option. We’re in a tough spot.”

On Thursday, Schmidt told The Telegraph that he had been thinking about this option and had come up with his list from concerns expressed during public meetings and from looking at conditions discussed in the consolidation that may close the high school in Rochester.

He also explained that the debt level freeze referred to any debt that the school might need to take on between 2018 and the date Ludlow might enter the RED. If Ludlow were to become part of the new district, any existing debt, including a 15-year, $300,000 bond floated to refurbish science labs and make bathrooms ADA accessible, would be the responsibility of the RED. According to a Vermont Municipal Bond Bank repayment schedule, $280,000 (including interest) is left to repay over nine years.

Andover committee representative Joe Fromberger expresses his frustration that the meeting has turned back to the Ludlow question.

Dale pondered how a town that isn’t party to the articles of agreement could take part in them, But there were more basic questions.

“Isn’t this where we’ve been for the last 16 months?” asked Andover representative Joe Fromberger. “We’ve made more progress tonight than in all that time.”

Several members noted that the job of the sub-committee is to work on a RED, not to re-negotiate the situation. It was suggested that a smaller group — including the chairs of the sub-committees and the superintendent look a the wording for an article that would allow for Ludlow to join the RED later.  It was not clear if those would be public meetings.

“It’s too late for the ‘maybe’ conversation,” said Dale referring to the looming deadlines and saying that a contingency piece could be added to the articles.

Green Mountain senior Skylar White explains the ‘Student Voice’ option which would establish an ‘International Business and Humanity Academy’ at Black River High School as part of a merger.

But the public comment portion of the meeting kept the ‘maybe conversation’ front and center. A group of Green Mountain students proposed (as it had at a meeting of the Ludlow/Mount Holly sub-committee) that the study committee return to looking at the one-school, two-campus plan they called “Student Voice C.” Under that scenario, Mount Holly would go to Mill River and Black River would become an “International Business and Humanity Academy” with 50 classes not currently offered.

A spreadsheet that was part of the student plan showed $750,000 savings with the academy.

Several members of the audience applauded the students’ work and asked about the feasibility of taking that route.

DesLauriers told the gathering that the students’ numbers had not been looked at by the business manager or the superintendent.

“We could create all those great ideas within the community we have,” said DesLauriers. “We don’t need an extra campus to do those things”

Members of the sub-committee noted that they had met for many months and reached a point where they had to move forward, that their charge was to work on a RED and that the place to talk about other ideas is before the full study committee.

“If we don’t make these decisions as a community, the state is going to come and do it with a hatchet,” said Shayna Kalnitsky, who told the group she has been an educator all her life. “Black River is a sinking ship financially. The cost of keeping the physical plant open for so few students affects the opportunities you can give them.”

The next RED sub-committee meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13 at the Baltimore Town Office, 1902 Baltimore Road Green Mountain Union High School, 716 Route 103 South in Chester. The next Mount Holly/Ludlow sub-committee meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday Feb. 7 at the Mount Holly School, 150 School St.

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