NEWARK – A triumvirate of Enosburg and Richford school board members collected before the State Board of Education during the education board’s meeting in Newark last Wednesday, intent on swaying the state board against a recommended merger of their schools.

Act 46 was passed in 2015 with the hope that, via school mergers, schools would be able to trim down administrative costs while improving educational opportunities for their students. The bill set up a multi-year process by which schools could voluntarily pursue mergers. Schools that didn’t merge voluntarily chanced a forced merger.

Richford and Enosburgh’s school districts were suggested as one of the 18 forced consolidations pitched in Acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey’s Act 46 recommendations. Ultimately it falls on the State Board of Education to decide whether Richford and Enosburgh’s school districts will be merged as recommended.

Rick Bartholomew of the Enosburgh school board led much of the conversation against the secretary’s recommended merger of the two districts. Flanked by Michael Howrigan, the Enosburg school board’s chair, and Kevin Blaney, vice chair of the Richford school board, Bartholomew warned that a consolidation of the two districts would sour the air between the two communities.

“We believe a forced merger will potentially result in an increase in animosity and fear,” Bartholomew said. “Animosity resulting from one town being forced to take over substantial debt from another town and perhaps the impression that one town will now control and dominate the other. Fear will result from worry of possibly losing a local school.”

Richford and Enosburgh have twice considered mergers – one with the whole of the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU) that was defeated by both communities and another that would have only merged just Enosburgh and Richford.

The latter was only defeated by a nine-vote margin in Richford. Enosburgh approved the bilateral merger 157 to 65.

A third merger attempt was not pursued despite the narrow defeat, as, according to the secretary’s report, Richford and Enosburgh reportedly expressed the same concerns Bartholomew echoed last Wednesday morning.

Bartholomew also praised the work done by the two schools already that cleared preexisting animosities between the communities, stating that “we have worked hard to eliminate barriers between two once fiercely rival schools.”

“With this forced merger… there’s a great risk of creating new barriers.”

Bartholomew read from a prepared statement as the education board looked on, questioning the promises of protection in a state-drafted articles of agreement that would be applied to districts merged under Act 46.

One of the State Board of Education’s roles during the implementation of Act 46 is the drafting of a general articles of agreement to be adopted by schools that were forced to consolidate as a result of Act 46.

During the early hours of the education board’s meeting that Wednesday, the board strongly suggested that their articles of agreement – which structure and govern unified school boards – would include protections against school closures.

Those protections, suggested Principal Assistant to the Secretary of Education Donna Russo-Savage, could limit votes on school closures to the school’s community and guarantee a process by which unified school board meetings are warned.

Currently, those general articles of agreement are only in draft form, meaning they’ll likely be revised several times before eventually being passed by the State Board of Education. Local boards would also have a chance to revise those articles once merged.

“We feel the Secretary discounted the threat of a school merger in the Enosburg-Richford district, in large part because the articles of agreement in our last merger bill had extensive protections,” Bartholomew read. “We need the board to understand that those protections… were voted down.

“We are certain the default articles from the Agency of Education will not include these same levels of protection against closure or reconfiguration.”

Bartholomew, similar to the presentation later made by Montgomery and covered in Tuesday’s Messenger, compared the recommended consolidation of Enosburgh’s and Richford’s schools to the secretary’s recommendation that the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown Unified Union (EMUU) school districts remain separate, wondering aloud why differences there excused a merger but didn’t excuse a Richford-Enosburg merger.

“We respectfully ask the state board to give us the same trust to continue our collaborative work while maintaining our separate districts,” Bartholomew finished, winning cheers from the crowd that gathered behind him.

The recommendations filed by Bouchey stated that the primary barrier to a merger between Stowe and the EMUU districts primarily related to the fact that EMUU was still trying to adjust to a previous voluntary merger, leaving Stowe without a nearby school district with a similar structure to its own.

“You envision something different than working together as one district, but could you talk more about, when you see there’s an inequity or problem that needs to be solved, how is that going to play out when you have two separate boards looking at the issue?” asked the chair of the state education board, Krista Huling, kicking off a series of questions from the board.

“We proposed having a joint council between the schools to help identify areas where equity in one school may be different than the other, or areas where both our schools may be deficient in equity relative to other schools in the state,” Bartholomew answered. “I think the vision of that is to actually work with the principals of both the schools, the council and the individual school boards… to identify these areas and work on a solution.

“Note that we already do a lot together as far as teacher sharing,” he added.

“How do you take action when, as we’ve heard from elsewhere in the state, it’s hard to work with the adults working from different rooms?” Huling asked, echoing questions she asked the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union schools that presented before Richford and Enosburgh.

“All it involves is communication,” Bartholomew countered. “Certainly communication between the two school boards is not a problem.”

The state board also interrogated the fear of a school closure Bartholomew referenced earlier, with several board members wondering where that fear came from when there hasn’t been any reference at the state level regarding a closure in the Richford School District.

“The law is very clear that we cannot close schools,” noted the state board’s vice chair, William Mathis.

“I think it depends on where you are,” answered Bartholomew. “In our case, it would go to efficiency – does operating two high schools ten miles apart make the most sense?

“Sometimes efficiency and equity don’t go hand-in-hand,” he continued. “When two districts come together… efficiency tends to rise to the top [and] equity, unfortunately, falls to second.”

Board member John Carroll followed up, reminding the Enosburg and Richford school board representatives that protections would be included in the general articles of agreement.

“We heard a presentation about the so-called default rules,” Carroll said, referring to a brief update given by Russo-Savage on the state’s draft of default articles of agreement. “They do provide extensive protections about closing and the new district can amend those rules.”

“While it would be noble for Enosburgh to adopt those rules again through another vote, it would probably be voting against its own political interest to do so,” Bartholomew replied. “You know, ceding political power and financial power to another town… might not happen.”

Bartholomew also hinted that they feared a district-wide vote to reconfigure the Richford Junior/Senior High School, stating “there are probably going to be reasons across the state where you might want school reconfiguration.”

“That’s speculation?” Carroll asked.

“Yeah.”

The board also spoke briefly about whether or not the two school boards had taken any steps to addressing some of the inequalities their Act 46 report had highlighted, with Bartholomew answering that they’ve addressed them as they see them.

“This is about having the adults in the same room… and I understand that the council is a way of trying to bring that information to the boards,” Huling said. “I’m just very concerned that the boards are acting different ways…”