NEWARK – Residents from Franklin and Highgate followed the State Board of Education to their meeting in Newark Wednesday morning to protest a recommended Act 46 merger that could, pending the education board’s decision, forcibly merge their schools with Swanton to create a Missisquoi Valley Unified School District.
Act 46 created a multi-year process in which districts were encouraged to merge to their governance with neighboring districts with the goal of reducing administrative overhead and improving educational opportunities. Districts which did not do so risked being ordered to merge by the state.
Under the law, the Secretary of Education made recommendations for mergers earlier this year, which the board is now considering. The decision about forcing mergers lies with the board.
Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (FNWSU) also presented an alternative governance structure (AGS) proposal to leave the five member districts of the supervisory union – Franklin, Highgate, Swanton, MVU and Sheldon – as they are.
The board heard testimony from members of Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee, who crafted AGS ultimately deemed by the acting secretary as “not convincing enough to overturn the legislature’s presumption that a [unified union school district] is the ‘preferred’ means” of meeting the Act 46 goals.
“Reading the state’s findings… it leads one to believe that it doesn’t characterize what our schools are about,” said Highgate’s Connie Beyor, a former member of the Highgate Elementary School Board and a member of that Act 46 committee.
Robert Berger, the study committee chair, called the secretary’s recommendations uninformed, initially attacking her assertion that Franklin “has been experiencing a steady, significant decline in its student population.”
“[It] took me off guard, because we’re not experiencing a dramatic decline in enrollment,” Berger said. “It couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Franklin Central School has experienced a relatively stable student population around 120 students for the past several decades, he said.
Berger also defended Franklin’s past assertion that it was a geographically isolated school, a designation it earned during a state study in 2011 – and a crux of the school’s argument to remain independent – before criticizing the secretary’s statement that a higher tax rate in Franklin wouldn’t be enough reason to exclude a full merger with the rest of the community.
“I would point out in the goals of Act 46… that it delivers an education at a cost the taxpayers value,” Berger said. “I don’t know a single taxpayer in the room that values their taxes going up.”
The Act 46 recommendations criticized this argument in the schools’ first presentation of their AGS, noting that “there is no evidence that the calculation resulting in the projected increase accounted for the potential savings that can be realized by the creative and efficient use of the unified district’s resources and flexibility.”
Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (FNWSU)’s Act 46 Independent Study predicted that tax rates would only decrease in Swanton should the supervisory union – including Sheldon – merge. That report, built on historic data and conversations with area schools, community members and legislators, alleged that costs had already been addressed efficiently as member schools of that supervisory union already had some of the lowest per pupil spending in the state.
Those reports were based on assumptions that the supervisory union had already realized potential savings from cost sharing for district-level shared staffing and other services, something previously reported in the Messenger.
“Those were based on sound data,” Berger stated. “It results in $115,000 in increased costs in Franklin… over $55,000 increased costs in Highgate and over $55,000 in increased costs at MVU.”
“To me, the secretary saying that just because it raises the taxes is not a reason to preclude us from enacting it,” Berger continued. “I would say that your own admission that your plan can’t meet the goals of Act 46 is certainly reason to preclude it from being considered a best means.”
Berger also defended the fact that Franklin was one of the best performing schools in the state, dubbed a Roots of Success school in the past. He highlighted that the school wasn’t undergoing an achievement gap that other schools were experiencing and boasted some of the best standardized test scores in the state.
That fact was something that won praise even from members of the State Board of Education.
“You clearly have a lot to feel good about with all your schools, and certainly Franklin School has done particularly well,” board member John Carroll said during a later discussion with the Act 46 committee.
“We have a school that by any metric is working… and working well,” Berger summarized of Franklin.
Last November, a non-binding vote of support for maintaining FNWSU’s current structure passed in all four of its member communities. Franklin and Sheldon voted unanimously in favor of remaining independent, while only one voter in Highgate supported a merger. Swanton was mixed, with 148 residents opposed to a merger and 105 for. Swanton was the only district to vote by Australian ballot.
While the recommendation noted the communities’ opposition to a school merger, it stated that “community sentiment… does not make a merger ‘impossible’ or ‘impracticable’” – an assertion that drew loud protests from residents in Franklin and Highgate in particular.
“Everybody in this room are telling you different,” said Highgate selectperson Steve LaFar. “People voted, and what I see here is that you’re going against the judgement of the public.”
He pointed to the signs then raised by community members from Franklin and Highgate, as well as those raised by residents from Montgomery and Charleston.
“These signs, they speak for themselves.”
Those votes became centerpieces for arguments from residents that what the Secretary of Education proposed was undemocratic, leading to chants that “votes count, democracy matters” and comparisons to North Korea and the Civil Rights Movement that won applause from the audience.
Several gavel snaps courtesy of the board’s chair, Krista Huling, ended the “votes count” chant. Huling again had to use her gavel when a teacher from Franklin ran over the allotted two minutes for individual comments. She was also applauded.
Franklin County’s state senators Republicans Randy Brock and Carolyn Branagan offered similar views, with Brock declaring that “votes count for something, and it’s a lot more than community sentiment.”
The rumor that a unified school board proportionally divided among the member towns would leave Franklin and Highgate as minorities and give political influence primarily to Swanton hovered above the audience, leading many to conclude that Franklin, as the smallest school in the proposed district, would be closed.
While no one with the Agency of Education or the State Board of Education signaled any intention of closing either Franklin or Highgate’s elementary schools, that fear became a rallying call for many of those in the audience.
Signs called on the education board to “save our school,” and people spoke of closing Franklin as an inevitability, something interrogated by Carroll during the board’s conversation with the supervisory union’s Act 46 committee.
“I think the question that comes up is that schools are going to disappear,” Carroll noted. “What is the factual evidence that would demonstrate that any of these schools would be required to close?”
“What is the factual evidence that this process is not going to close any of the schools?” Berger replied. “There is no factual evidence supporting it either way, but I can tell you the thinking of a lot of our voters.”
“You don’t have as much voice in the education of your students that you once had, now you’re limited,” Berger said.
Every merger is governed by Articles of Agreement. In voluntary mergers, districts create their own and present them to voters. With the forced mergers, the state board will craft the articles. The board suggested requiring a majority vote from the town in which a school is located before a school is closed, referring referring specifically to protections for small schools included in the Kingdom East Unified School District.
Berger countered by saying the articles could be altered by a public vote, striking any protections for smaller schools and lead to their closure.
“These protections that these schools are saying that they have,” Berger said. “Those articles can be amended.”
Currently, Franklin’s student count is remaining constant around 120 students, while Swanton and Highgate’s elementary schools are adding students. In this environment, a closure of Franklin Central School seems questionable, as it’s unlikely Highgate or Swanton would have the capacity to handle excess students.
Closures have occurred during mergers elsewhere in the state, though those schools were closed with approval of voters in those communities. Likewise, conversations related to school closures focused primarily on so-called micro-schools with less than 50 students.
Act 46 mergers are not limited to proportional representation. A unified school district could divide its representation evenly among member towns, so long as the whole of the district’s community voted on each of those members. Hybrid models also exist, like the one used by the Maple Run Unified District that divides Fairfield’s single vote between two Fairfield representatives.
Still, the threat of having a singular voice on a hypothetical school board fueled much of Franklin’s dissent.
“We don’t have a voice to save our school, and we love our school,” Berger warned, earning warm applause from the audience.
The State Board of Education will vote on whether or not they plan to act on Bouchey’s recommendations later this year, with a deadline for a final plan on forced mergers set for the end of November. They have upcoming meetings planned for Act 46 testimony in Montpelier and Chester and are accepting public comments in the form of letters.
Wednesday’s meeting also included individual presentations from Sheldon and Montgomery, which may be required to join a unified school district already formed by Berkshire and Bakersfield, as well as joint testimony from Richford and Enosburgh’s school districts.
Those testimonies will be covered in later editions of the Messenger.