FCSU: Forum airs ed. merger plan

Study panel report prompts questions

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — How the merged school board will be elected, whether students and teachers will move between schools, and what options high school students will have were questions raised at Wednesday night’s first public forum on the creation of a new school district comprised of St. Albans City, St. Albans Town and Fairfield.

A study committee has recommended the merger of four districts controlled by the three communities – the three K-8 schools and Bellows Free Academy (BFA) – be merged into a single district with a board of 10 members having nine votes. Fairfield would have two half votes.

Under the law, representation must be proportional based upon population. Giving Fairfield two half votes was a way of insuring it had two members on the board, explained Paul Bourbeau, of the study committee.

The committee proposed electing all of the members “at large,” meaning voters in all three communities would vote on the representatives from all three towns.

“Board members represent everyone in the district and not just the community where they live,” said Jim Farr, committee chair.

Jessica Gaudette, a resident of Fairfield attending the meeting, pointed out that means city and town voters could determine who represents Fairfield. “We as a population might vote for our two board members and you could outvote us,” she said.

“This is one district,” answered Farr. “They’re all our kids.”

“We need to make a unified district where all the kids matter,” said Kristina Ellsworth-Spooner, of the city school board. “We need to be caring about all these kids.”

Benefits for students

Asked about the benefits for students, superintendent Kevin Dirth said, “There is a lack of equity right now.” Fairfield, for example, no longer has a math interventionist to assist students needing specialized math instruction.

If the three K-8 schools are in one district, then the board will need to make certain students in all three schools have essentially equal access to opportunities and resources, Dirth explained. That doesn’t mean each school would necessarily have the exact same programs, but in fundamental areas, such as math, they would have to offer the same resources.

When students from the three schools reach BFA, they’re in different places today, said Dirth. The three schools have different curricula and assessments. A single district would be able to implement common assessments and curricula.

There will be administrative savings, said Dirth, that “can go towards students and not bureaucracy.” An initial, conservative estimate of administrative savings is $228,000 over five years from fewer audits, contract negotiations, and board members.

Asked about moving teachers between schools, Dirth said that was unlikely. “It doesn’t make any educational sense to move teachers or students willy-nilly,” he said.

Staff will be moved if it benefits students, such as moving a paraeducator along with the child they serve, said Dirth.

Farr said the ability to move teachers may allow the board to avoid layoffs. A teacher no longer needed in one school might move to another.

Schools would share resources including software, science equipment or musical instruments. Non-classroom staff could be shared, such as music, art, foreign language and physical education teachers, as well as special educators. Maintenance staff could be shared, especially over the summer months.

Fairfield School Director Bennett Dawson spoke strongly about the potential benefits for Fairfield students. He is in favor of “giving up the (current Fairfield) board to get music and arts and foreign language.”

The school has been suffering a “slow death” from loss of those programs and extra-curricular activities that is much worse than the demise of the local school board, he said.

“The (new) board is going to be interested in all the students,” said Dawson. “They’re not going to give short shrift to Fairfield because they’re over there.”

A St. Albans Town parent asked, “Are we going to provide equity without taking away what we have at town school?” She specially mentioned town school offering French starting in third grade.

“You’ve struck on a really important question,” said Mike Deweese, a consultant advising the committee.

“The idea here is to become smarter,” he added. By being more efficient and economical, the board could use the savings to better provide for the needs of all students, explained Deweese, citing savings in administrative costs.

School choice

Fairfield parents asked about high school choice.

If Fairfield voters approve the merger, Fairfield students would attend BFA. However, under Act 129, the approximately 25 students at Fairfield who choose another high school would still be able to do so, explained Fairfield board chair and committee member Mike Malone.

In addition, any students attending other high schools at the time of the merger would be allowed to continue at those schools.

Asked about moving students between the K-8 schools, Dirth said he expected there to be limited choice. “We don’t really expect much to change,” he said.

The merger could allow students to attend the school closest to where they live, or the one that most matches their interests or needs. For example, a student living on the Fairfield-St. Albans Town border might want to attend Fairfield to take advantage of their maple sugaring and gardening programs, or a Fairfield family might opt to send a child with autism to city school’s autism center.

It would also allow a student whose family moves from the city to the town to remain in city school and vice versa, said Farr.

The money

St. Albans Town Selectboard member Sam Smith asked about the intent to combine all of the assets and liabilities of the four districts, suggesting there might need to be some compensation to some communities for their assets.

The study committee has examined the assets of each district, using the replacement costs provided by the insurance company they all use. BFA has the most net assets at $55.5 million, after including $459,000 in capital reserves and subtracting $3.6 million in debt.

That’s followed by city school, which has net assets totaling $29.5 million, including $1.5 million in reserve funds, and debt of $4.3 million.

Neither Fairfield nor St. Albans Town school have any debt. The combined value of St. Albans Town school’s building and reserve funds is $24.8 million, and Fairfield’s is $5.9 million.

Farr responded to Smith’s question saying, “At the end of the day, we’re all going to become one.”

A draft of the articles of agreement for merger does give the town that built each school the right of first refusal should their buildings be closed at any time in the future. Thus, if any school is closed for whatever reason, that town will be able to buy it from the district for $1.

Under Act 46 the state provided a carrot for school districts in a single supervisory union to merge. The carrot comes in the form of five years of tax reductions, but to get them districts must approve the merger by July 1, 2016.

Mergers approved the following years will qualify for four years of incentives.

The money to pay for the incentives will come from education fund and will be paid by the towns that don’t merge. “If you’re not getting them, you’re paying them,” said Farr.

Savings for each taxpayer are projected at $1,500 over five years in St. Albans Town on a $200,000 home, and at roughly $1,000 each for the same in the city and Fairfield.

The stick is that districts that have not merged by 2018, will likely have the decision made for them by the State Board of Education.

“We have to look at this not like we’re designing a school system for next year or the year after that,” said Farr. The purpose, he suggested, is to design a system for the future. “Ten, 20 years from now, what’s the school going to look like?”

On Monday, Nov. 30, the study committee will meet to revise the articles of agreement based upon feedback gathered from the four district boards before presenting the articles to the Agency of Education for review.

The second of three forum is Wednesday, Dec. 2, at 6 p.m. at St. Albans City School. All three towns must approve the merger on Town Meeting Day for it to take place.