RICHFORD — Concerns about how the proposed Act 46 merger was presented to the public by the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU) and the St. Albans Messenger dominated the final community forum in Richford Thursday night.
Of the 17 people in attendance, a handful was Richford residents. The majority of the audience consisted of Enosburgh School Board members, FNESU staff and Richford town officials, past and present.
“I’m going to be very straight,” Joey Knoff, an Enosburgh resident, said. “I haven’t been following this religiously.”
“I got this in the mail yesterday,” he said, waving a postcard around which was sent to residents of Bakersfield, Berkshire, Montgomery, Enosburgh and Richford by the supervisory union.
Paid for with grant money provided by the state, the card reminded eligible residents to vote on the merger on June 7 and explained different aspects of the merger in bullet points on the back.
“Here’s my perspective, right or wrong,” Knoff said. “I want to be informed and gather the facts, but what I feel is that this has kind of been orchestrated in a way that it’s been one-sided.”
Looking back at the postcard in his hands, Knoff said his main source of information, the supervisory union, lists all the positive aspects of the proposed unification.
“I question that role,” he said. “I would better have appreciated a presentation that was balanced, pros and cons, because there’s always pros and cons to everything.”
Some of the positive aspects of the merger, according to principals, teachers and FNESU staff, are:
- Thirty cents off each town’s tax rate over a five-year period.
- Over $1 million in savings.
- Sharing resources
- Potential for bringing special education services in-house
- No “red tape” for new board of directors, including being able to allow transient students to stay put
- One employer for all teachers
- No school closures for at least ten years
Nichols said he’s mentioned the negative aspects of at every unification forum, including reduced board representation and a reduction in high school choice in three communities.
“One of the things that worries me as a Berkshire resident personally is with only two board members the vote might be a little bit diluted,” Nichols said.
Representation on the new board of directors is proportional to each town’s population. Therefore, Enosburgh would get four representatives, Richford three and Montgomery, Bakersfield and Berkshire would all get two representatives respectively.
Nichols also alluded to one town’s poor attendance at meetings of the supervisory union board, expressing concern that if school board members also failed to attend meetings in a merged district that community would miss out on representation.
He said in order for a board to run smoothly, all members need to be present and active.
Voters will choose the new board of directors on June 7, the same day as the vote on the merger. All but one of the candidates running currently serves on an FNESU school board.
The last concern Nichols mentioned was the merger limiting high school choice, especially in Montgomery.
“I personally don’t think we should be spending money going into Canada,” he said. “But I do understand the St. Johnsbury argument.”
Currently, ten or so students from Montgomery study at Stanstead College, a private boarding school, in Canada. The school district pays roughly $14,500 in tuition for each of them.
Only a third of Montgomery students attend either Enosburg Falls High School (EFHS) or Richford Junior Senior High School (RJSHS). The rest go to public or private high schools around the state.
With a merger, students in Montgomery and other choice towns, Berkshire and Bakersfield, would be able to attend EFHS, RJSHS, Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans and any other public high school in the state, space permitting, under Act 129.
Linda Collins, chair of Richford selectboard, expressed concern over a recent article published in The County Courier.
Quoted in the article, which focused on the issue of Act 46, is an email sent from Superintendent Jay Nichols to Bakersfield Elementary Middle School Principal Lynn Cota-Caforia. In it, Nichols writes that the Messenger would like him to coordinate letters to the editor in support of the merger.
The Messenger encourages letters to the editor from all perspectives. On this issue the paper has published letters from both proponents and opponents.
The Messenger explained to Nichols that if he wanted to present different aspects of the merger to the public, the best way to go about doing that is to have people familiar with the subject matter write letters to the editor.
This is the same advice the Messenger gives to all public officials and organizations seeking to present issues to the public.
A second concern Knoff had was about what would happen if one of the towns chose to not merge.
“I actually feel that there’s a sense of urgency being put on this which is if we don’t act now, the state will take over and act for us,” Knoff said. “And I find that very disturbing.”
If the merger is shot down by voters on June 7, the school districts will have a second chance to look at a possible merger and present a proposal to voters next year.
They can propose the same one as this year or look at other options, such as a side-by-side. The unification study committee did consider this option before opting to present voters with full unification.
However, any school districts that have not merged by 2018 will be required, under the law, to demonstrate to the State Board of Education how they can meet the educational goals of Act 46 without merging. Should it fail to successfully make its case, the state board will require the district to merge with another district or districts. The only limitation is that the board cannot require a school to give up high school choice.
Any districts not merging by 2018 will lose the transition grant of $130,000 to help facilitate a smooth unification, the small schools grants and all of the tax incentives.
As Suzanne Hull-Parent, member of the Enosburgh School Board, said, Act 46 is a carrot and stick law.