FRANKLIN – The recommendation of the Secretary of Education that Franklin merge its school district with Swanton and Highgate was met with vitriol from Franklin and Highgate residents during a meeting at the Franklin Elementary School Wednesday night.
Last month, the Vermont Secretary of Education’s Office released a statewide consolidation plan required by Act 46. Those recommendations included the merger of the member districts of the Missisquoi Valley Union High School (MVU) – Swanton, Highgate and Franklin into a single governing district.
Franklin residents, who have opposed a merger, were irate as they took to the microphone last night to air their disapproval.
“Basically what they’re looking to do… is contrary what we presented as a proposal and contrary to what we held for a vote in November,” said Robert Berger of the Franklin School Board, before leading into a reading of Act 46’s recommendations for Franklin Central School.
“The secretary believes that the best means of meeting the Act 46 goals – for each district individually and for the region – is for the State Board of Education to merge the governance structures of the Missisquoi Valley Union High School District, the Franklin School District, the Highgate School District and the Swanton School District into a single unified union school district that provides for the education of its PreK-12 students by operating multiple schools,” Berger read.
Audience members followed along on a printout of the recommendation offered to them by members of the Franklin School Board as the audience filed into the elementary school’s gym.
“If you read through the state’s proposal, where they admit that even if taxes are going to go up for one or two groups of tax payers, that they can’t consider that as the sole reason for precluding merger,” Berger told the audience. “Basically, in my mind, that’s an admission that they can’t meet Act 46’s goals.”
Franklin’s opposition to a school merger was largely fueled by a fear that, with a merged district built on proportional representation, Franklin would have too small of a voice to defend against a possible school closure. That sentiment was expressed clearly Wednesday night, as Berger’s address to the crowd took on a fatalist tone.
“Our back is up against the wall right now,” he said. “I don’t want to give you guys any magic hope.
“We’re fighting for the life of our school.”
A host of state representatives and senators collected at a table near the podium. Senators Carolyn Branagan (R – Franklin) and Randy Brock (R – Franklin) sat in the center, flanked by Rep. Corey Parent (R – St. Albans), Rep. Brian Savage (R – Swanton) and Rep. Cindy Weed (D/P – Enosburgh).
Also invited that night was Margaret Maclean, a former member of the State Board of Education and principal from Peacham. Maclean, critical of what she recently decried the state’s “one size fits all” approach to school mergers, was invited to the podium to share her thoughts as an education consultant and present options for the Town of Franklin to continue its opposition to a forced merger.
“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” she said. “You have a competent school board, and you’re all here.”
“I trust that you will act in the best interest of your kids and your community,” she continued.
Maclean encouraged community members to attend an upcoming State Board of Education meeting in Newark, which she called their “last opportunity to speak to the state board,” and gave the community three options for pressing forward with the Secretary of Education’s recommendations.
Her first option was simple: comply.
The second option, meanwhile, continued Franklin’s history of opposing a school merger.
“The second option is to think about going to court and fighting a merger,” Maclean announced. “You will not be alone – there will likely be others.”
Maclean billed her third and final option as the hardest, but also noted that it was something other communities had contemplated. It was also an option that drew some interest from the audience, who would take public comment time to encourage some thought about it.
“That’s the decision to close the school before their neighbors close them,” Maclean said. “Close the school while they still have a school board and they can still own the building, and that a group in town can plan to operate an independent school in the building whose students can be tuitioned to that school.”
She cited North Bennington as an example of this, where the community voted to shut down a 140-year old public school and replace it with an independent school that rehired many of the public school’s old staff. North Bennington, with 116 students at the time, was a school of similar size to Franklin.
Residents appealed to representatives during their public comment section, asking whether or not they would vote for a repeal of Act 46. While Parent, Branagan and Savage all said they would vote for a repeal of Act 46, Brock and Weed were more hesitant.
“I would vote to give it some real major surgery,” Brock said, a sentiment Weed said she shared.
“The reason I say that is because we’ve already had a whole bunch of towns that have gone through mergers in Act 46,” Brock elaborated. “You want to think through what you do when you repeal, because you cause unintended consequences that affect lots of other things that have already happened.
“Once you do something like pass Act 46 in the first place, it’s very difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube when some of it’s already out.”
He called for clearer criteria for forced mergers and clearer statistics to inform the Act 46 process, which Weed echoed when Brock passed the microphone to the Enosburgh representative.
“I find it very interesting that we have an option for alternative structure, but when people try to apply for it, they don’t really give you the option,” Weed said.
Historically, the communities of those schools have opposed a merger, with Franklin voting unanimously against a merger and Highgate residents voting 103-1 in favor of remaining independent during a nonbinding vote last November. Swanton residents, meanwhile, approved of a merger in a 148-105 vote conducted via Australian ballot.
That merger would have also included Sheldon Elementary School, who, along with the members of the MVU school district, constitute the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (FNWSU). Sheldon, like Franklin, voted unanimously against that merger.
Under the secretary’s Act 46 recommendations, Sheldon would be merged into a unified school district with Montgomery and the already merged Northern Mountain Village Union School District consisting of Bakersfield and Berkshire. All four are K-8 schools which pay tuition for their high school students.
Act 46 was passed with reducing education spending in mind, particularly as special education and healthcare costs increase and statewide student enrollment decreases. In Franklin County, student enrollment has largely stabilized and, in some schools, enrollment has actually increased.
In addition, Act 46 was intended to increase equity as schools with declining populations find themselves unable to offer the same opportunities as larger schools. By sharing resources, the small schools would be able to provide more for their schools. That has been the case in the Maple Run School District where Fairfield Elementary School has regained a French teacher and a math interventionist following a merger.
Franklin’s school is regularly cited as a model school in Vermont, something Berger highlighted during his address Wednesday night. He noted that Franklin was featured as a Roots of Success case study school that highlighted the fact “an achievement gap between our students in poverty and not in poverty does not exist.”
He also noted that Franklin’s standardized test scores are some of the highest in the state, while Franklin also manages to be one of the lowest spending schools in the state, and attacked the notion that the school is experiencing a dramatic enrollment loss.
“They’re painting the picture of an unsustainable school that is experiencing a steady decline,” Berger said, referring to the state. “I’m not going to pretend that our numbers are a steady line, but we’re certainly not in crisis.”
No one associated with the Agency of Education or the Vermont Board of Education has suggested closing Franklin’s school. Discussion of school closures has focused on so-called micro-schools with 50 students or fewer.
Between the 2017-2018 school year and the 2018-2019 school year, Berger said he suspects there to be a decline of only two students to a total of 117 students. Franklin’s student count has hovered near that number since the 1970s with the occasional swelling or contraction.
A proportional system of governance would see Franklin afforded the smallest number of representatives on a unified school board due to its small population. A unified school district isn’t limited to proportional governance, however, as a district unified under Act 46 also has the option of establishing a school board based on at large voting, where each community has the same number of representatives on a board voted on by the whole of the district.
Likewise, while school mergers under Act 46 have resulted in the closure of smaller schools elsewhere in the state, there’s no clear movement or incentive for the closure of Franklin’s school in a unified school district where member schools in Swanton and Highgate are seeing growth in enrollment.
Residents, fearful of a closure in either Franklin or Highgate, also decried what they saw as a loss of local control over community schools, which they viewed as the anchor for their rural communities. Others went further, declaring the recommendations “undemocratic” and in direct opposition to November’s nonbinding votes against a merger.
“Get angry that the State of Vermont thinks our votes are just sentiment,” called Sharon Bousquet, the chair of the Highgate selectboard who attended last night’s forum. “We deserve to be heard.
“It is our right to take care of our children in the best way that we see fit.”
Her comment was received with a roar of applause.