MONTGOMERY — Montgomery school board members cited fear of the unknown as both a pro and a con for the proposed Act 46 merger during a unification forum Monday night.
Some residents wanted to explore the options for Montgomery School District if the town voted no to the merger in June.
“I personally disagree with the legislation as a whole,” Christina Suarez-Pratt, a school board member, said. Suarez-Pratt also served on the Unification Study Committee.
“I don’t think that the state should be giving us a carrot and a stick about what choices we’re making for our children,” she said.
The carrot is the tax breaks given to school districts that merge before June 2018. The stick is the State Board of Education will step in and decide the fate of school districts that don’t merge by then.
“There’s so many unknowns out there,” Bruce Mercy, vice chair of the school board and a member of the study committee, said. “What’s going to happen in 2019?”
School Board Chair Charles Purrier said he would vote yes to unification because of this fear of the unknown. “The state’s going to do something,” Purrier said.
The State Board of Education could pair Montgomery with another K – 8 district in Franklin County, such as Sheldon. Or the state could pair it with a bunch of K – 8 districts from all over Vermont. There are no restrictions. “They have that power,” he said. “They can do that.”
“I also totally disagree with Act 46,” Purrier said. “However, given the law and it is the law, I feel that its better to create our own destiny and decide for ourselves.”
Cathy Howell, another school board member, said she would vote yes for the same reason. “The fear of the unknown is huge to me personally,” she said.
It’s this and her confidence in the supervisory union’s two high schools that overrides the potential loss of high school choice for Montgomery.
If Montgomery chose to merge, their high school students would be able to attend Enosburg Falls High School, Richford Junior Senior High School and any other public high school in the state, space permitting, under Act 129.
“I’ve seen very successful kids come out of Enosburg and Richford,” Howell said, and would have “no problem” sending her kids to either of those schools, instead of choosing from a plethora of options.
“This idea of all these penalties and losing small school grants and in tough budgetary tax times, I understand the fear that that would gender in a community,” Mary Niles, another school board member, said. “You might miss out on this and you might miss out on this.”
“But this is a permanent long lasting transformation of our school so to do this under a coercive piece of legislation, under duress, concerns me,” she said. “We’re kind of left feeling, out of desperation and the fear of the unknown, that we have to move more quickly than our community feels like it want to move.”
A resident of Montgomery spoke up, after hearing the views of all the school board members.
“To make a decision because the state says we have to make one and we’ve got a year that I’m hearing about that we can wait,” Al Gratton said, “Why would we make one based on fear, based on information we don’t have, based on a whole lot of unknowns? Why would we do that as a community?”
“I also don’t feel like we should lose our right to tuition our students out,” Suarez-Pratt said.
“A side-by-side merger would be a better option,” she said, because it “would allow Bakersfield and Montgomery to continue to keep school choice. I think that out of anything that’s a far smarter option.”
The Unification Study Committee looked into a side-by-side merger before members decided to pursue full unification.
A side-by-side would consist of Enosburgh, Richford and Berkshire teaming up into one school district while Montgomery and Bakersfield paired up into another. The current supervisory union would oversee the two new merged school districts.
Montgomery and Bakersfield would keep high school choice and continue to pay tuition. The other three towns would be able to send their students to the two high schools within their district or potentially to other public high schools under Act 129 for free.
Although the side-by-side merger meets the minimal requirements of Act 46, the committee decided to not pursue this governance structure option because of “fewer benefits for students and taxpayers.”
The structure would also result in “less cost savings both at the town and supervisory union level,” according to the committee.
In the fall, teachers across the supervisory union were surveyed anonymously about which governance structure they preferred: full unification or side-by-side. Of the 139 teachers that participated, 63 percent chose full unification as the best option.
According to Superintendent Jay Nichols, the state would not allow the committee to put both governance structures in front of voters to allow them to decide. Therefore, the committee chose full unification for the first go around.
If the merger is voted down in June, the five districts will have a chance next year to propose another merger and bring it in front of voters. At this time, the committee could present a side-by-side option. They could also present a full unification merger again.
If the necessary districts, Berkshire, Enosburgh and Richford, approve the merger on June 7 this year but Montgomery does not, the merger will still go through.
Montgomery could ask to join the unified district at a later date. The school district could also try to pair up with other K through 8 districts to keep school choice or look around at other supervisory unions.
If Montgomery votes ‘no’ this year and next, that’s when the stick comes in to play.