State Ed Board OKs TRSU RED plan; town votes eyed for May 2

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

At its Tuesday, March 21 meeting, the Vermont State Board of Education gave the go-ahead to four area towns to put an Act 46 merger proposal before their voters on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. The approval by the Agency of Education and the Board of Education was needed to move forward with the plan.

“It was a pretty exciting day,” said Alison DesLauriers of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union study committee. “But now the work of explaining it to the voters begins.” DesLauriers attended the board meeting in Barre with TRSU Superintendent Meg Powden and study committee chair Sebastian Frank.

A yes vote by Andover, Cavendish and Chester would create the Green Mountain Unified District, which would be comprised of Green Mountain High School, Chester-Andover Elementary and Cavendish Elementary and would be run by a single school board that would also be elected on May, 2. A no vote in any one of those towns would kill the proposal.

Study Committee chair Bruce Schmidt of Ludlow works on the committee charge at the first TRSU Act 46 meeting in November 2015. Chester Telegraph photo.

A yes vote in Baltimore would add that town to the district but is not necessary to form the district. A no vote there would have Baltimore looking for a partner with whom to merge.

The plan is the product of 17 months of work by the TRSU study committee comprised of representatives of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish, Chester, Ludlow, Mount Holly and Plymouth.

The study considered many aspects of merging schools including planning, finance, property and governance. But it slowed a crawl in the spring of 2016. Then, over the summer, TRSU chose not renew the contract of the study’s first consultant and brought in Steve Dale in that capacity. Dale is the former executive director of the Vermont School Board Association and worked on the merger that created the Two Rivers Supervisory Union a few years back.

In rebooting the process in the fall of 2016, several proposals for merging all of the schools (except Plymouth which had found another partner) were put forward. But with the per pupil spending of Ludlow and Mount Holly schools being substantially higher than those of the other towns, the plans would have raised school taxes dramatically for Andover, Cavendish and Chester. The per pupil spending of a school is one of the largest determining factors for education tax rates.

Act 46 consultant Stephen Dale outlines the process of selecting an merger option at a study committee meeting in Baltimore in December 2016. Chester Telegraph photo

Discussions through the winter revolved around finding options that would keep Black River High School open. These included sending all middle school students to Ludlow and all high school students to Chester or establishing an international business and humanities academy. But none solved the tax rate problem.

One option that was discussed was forming a Regional Education District, and as the June 30 deadline for forming a RED and having it approved by the voters approached and no Black River solution in sight, the representatives of four of the towns decided to put together the proposal.   The sub-committee that formed the RED made it clear that if Ludlow and Mount Holly decided to close Black River High School, the door was open for either or both to join the new district.

In an emotional meeting on Feb. 9, the study sub-committee representing Ludlow and Mount Holly voted unanimously to reject the offer even though two of the three options it was considering involved closing the Ludlow high school.

At this point, school board representatives in Chester, Andover, Baltimore and Cavendish must petition their towns to hold elections, after which they will hold informational meetings in all four towns.

(UPDATE: The town school boards voted on Monday, March 27 to petition their towns to hold a vote on Tuesday, May 2 after informational meetings.)

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