Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — Voters in Fairfield, St. Albans City and St. Albans Town will decide a proposed merger of their school districts on Town Meeting Day after all.
On Saturday, the Franklin Central Supervisory Union (FCSU) Act 46 Study Committee reversed its decision from last Monday and voted to forward the Articles of Agreement and committee report to the Vermont State Board of Education for approval. With that approval, the merger would go to voters in all three communities.
It was clear from the discussion, however, that the vote would not be unanimous.
The panel voted 5-3, with St. Albans Town School Board Chair Paul Bourbeau, who previously voted against, abstaining. St. Albans City School Director Tayt Brooks changed his vote from Monday, voting in favor on Saturday.
The conference room at the FCSU office was filled to capacity, with roughly 30 people, including elected officials from all three communities.
Audience members were given an opportunity to speak.
St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache thanked the board for its work and strongly urged it to put the issue before voters. “This is, I think, one of the most important issues in our community,” she said.
St. Albans Town Selectman Bruce Cheeseman said he’d heard from 25 to 30 townspeople in the past 24 hours. The majority favored a public vote, he said.
Rep. Dan Connor, D-Fairfield, said, “If we’re truly thinking about the kids, we need to bring this forward and let the voters decide.”
The Fairfield community has made a tremendous investment in its school, including the maple sugaring operation, a greenhouse and outdoor classroom, Connor noted. The school provides an “opportunity for kids to have a connection to their roots,” he said.
For that alone, Fairfield has something to offer the other schools, he said.
Connor also said he had recently spoken with Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, and had learned the state is down another 900 students this year.
“If we can collectively engage with this process, their will be savings for all our communities,” Connor concluded.
Rep. Kathleen Keenan, D-St. Albans, also attended the meeting, but did not speak.
Former representative Mike McCarthy said he had been shocked the committee initially voted not to forward the articles to the state board and ultimately voters. Having attended a public forum on the merger, McCarthy said it was “clear you all had come up with a way not only for us to save money but provide shared resources and increased educational opportunities.”
Bellows Free Academy (BFA) board member Al Corey said he, too, had been surprised. “I had thought most of you were on the same page,” said Corey, adding there was no indication in the minutes they were not.
School districts that do not merge by 2018 risk having the state board of education decide on a merger for them. “We should never let the state move in to tell us how to create a district,” said Corey. He, too, said he had heard from many people who wanted the public vote.
St. Albans Town resident Steven LaRosa said the merger would allow students to remain in their current school when families moved within the new district. Allowing this “where they’ve established themselves means the world to some of these kids,” he said.
Heather Smith, the city school’s farm-to-school coordinator, added, “This would help us maybe keep kids where they need to be.”
Nilda Gonnella-French, BFA board chair asked superintendent Kevin Dirth how this would let kids remain in the city or town school after their family moved.
Currently, a city student who moves to town school can remain in city school, but the town board must grant permission and pay tuition to city school, explained Dirth.
If the merger were approved, the schools would be in one district, along with BFA and Fairfield Center School. The district would have one budget and its students would be students of the district for purposes of state aid and the tax formula. Thus, there would be no financial impact on the district or any of the schools if a student stayed in his or her original school.
If voters approve the merger, the new school board would decide whether to allow students to remain in their original school when their families move, explained Dirth.
Brooks moved to reconsider and renew the original motion disapproved last Monday.
Bourbeau called a point of order. He argued reconsideration could be done only at the meeting in which the original motion was made.
Committee chair Jim Farr said he had consulted with the district’s attorney, who told him different rules applied to subcommittees. “He tells us reconsideration is the word to use,” said Farr.
Bourbeau said he, too, had spoken with the attorney, who said it was fine for the committee to meet again because it had never formally been dissolved, but not that it was acceptable to have a motion for reconsideration.
Farr asked Bourbeau in what capacity he called the attorney, noting such calls cost the supervisory union money. “I don’t think any member of the committee can call the attorney to get his own questions answered,” said Farr
Bourbeau didn’t answer.
Attention returned to the motion.
Bourbeau noted that nothing had changed since Monday night. “I believed I was voting on a motion that was premature and too all encompassing,” he said. “That one motion failed. Other motions could come up.”
“We just heard 13 people stand up and say they wanted to see this on Town Meeting Day,” said Farr.
“I didn’t hear one person say they wanted to vote on it on Town Meeting Day,” said Bourbeau.
“I would,” said LaRosa from the audience.
The motion for reconsideration passed 8-1, with Bourbeau opposed.
Fairfield School Board Chair Mike Malone moved to send the articles to the state board and then put them before voters on Town Meeting Day. Jeff Morrill seconded.
Bourbeau said the committee could continue its work without forwarding the articles now. He has questioned the financial model showing a possible $4.6 million in savings, asking how it works and what numbers it relies on. “I want to see those numbers,” said Bourbeau.
He also would like to see a plan for how education would be made more equitable across the three K-8 schools and a sample budget.
“I don’t think I know enough about Act 46 yet to make an informed vote,” said Bourbeau.
Gonnella-French said she did not consider the merger dead after last Monday’s meeting, suggesting there was no opportunity after the vote to discuss alternative ways forward. “People were so ticked off that night that we didn’t have the opportunity to process alternatives,” she said.
“We were all very concerned about the timeline,” she reminded the rest of the committee. “We fast forwarded all of this.”
“I’m afraid we’re going to hold hands together and jump off a cliff,” she said. “I never wanted to see this die.”
“This has been like drinking out of a fire hose,” said Bourbeau.
Farr noted the committee’s charge stated the committee’s mission was to study merger with a Town Meeting Day target for a vote. He added that the panel’s report and articles already have been praised as among the best in the state by Agency of Education staff that have reviewed them.
Bourbeau replied that the panel’s charge stated March, not Town Meeting Day, reiterating that everyone had been concerned about the tight deadline and if the reports and articles weren’t ready, the committee had said it would change the deadline.
However, the committee presented an initial draft of articles to all four school boards and the Agency of Education, and held three public meetings with the expectation that a final draft would be voted on Jan. 4, to meet a submission deadline to the board of education on Jan. 5.
The board was able to revote on Saturday because Holcombe agree to extend the deadline until today for FCSU.
Prior to the Jan. 5 meeting no one on the committee offered a motion to change the March goal in the charge, although some did, at times, express concern about the timeline.
Kerry McCracken Ducolon of the St. Albans Town Board, said, “From the start we all were concerned about the timeline.” She was always focused on what’s best for children, she added, before concluding, “I want you to be most informed, and I don’t know if we’re there.”
Nina Hunsicker, also a town representative, said, “I’d like a deeper dive on some stuff.”
Gonnella-French said, “Everyone has to proceed with caution because the answers are not as clear as they appear on the front page of the St. Albans Messenger.”
Bourbeau moved to change the date in the motion for presenting the merger to voters from Town Meeting Day to the first Tuesday in May.
Farr said, “We know we’re going to get less voters.”
Bourbeau said he was not concerned with the total number of voters, but how informed they would be3. “I want to see how many informed voters we can get to vote yes or no on it,” he said.
His amendment was rejected 4-5. Voting in favor were Bourbeau, Gonnella-French, Hunsicker and Ducolon. Voting against were Farr, Malone, Morrill, Brooks and Sally Lindberg.
The committee then took up the motion to forward the articles to the state board and voters. In favor were Farr, Malone, Morrill, Brooks and Lindberg. Ducolon, Hunsicker, and Gonnella-French voted against. Bourbeau abstained saying he could not support the motion but that voting against it “would send the wrong message.”