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State Education Board To Consider Merger Of Supervisory Unions

On Tuesday, Jan. 20, the State Board of Education votes on a proposal that seeks to merge two school supervisory unions, including 10 towns in the White River Valley.

On Tuesday, Jan. 20, the State Board of Education votes on a proposal that will merge two school supervisory unions. The newly formed union would include 10 towns in the White River Valley. It would be the second recent consolidation in Vermont. Supporters say the plan is preliminary, so much remains to be worked out. 

It's been discussed for years, especially in the tiny town of Rochester.

Tucked into a remote corner of the Green Mountains, Rochester has one of the smallest K-12 schools Vermont, with just over 160 students. The other five towns in the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union are also small, and most have been losing student population. When the superintendent retired last year,  the State Board of Education ordered WNSU to study ways to reduce per-student costs and increase opportunities. The plan is to merge with the Orange Windsor Supervisory Union, to the east.

OWSU Superintendent Bruce Labs says, “There’s strength in numbers. And most of us around the table have been talking about creating something much better than we have now."

Better, he says, because by operating one central office, not two, the merger will free up as much as $314,000, according to one consultant. What excites Labs more than cost cutting, though, is what he calls "critical mass." As the number of towns in the union doubles, he says students would have more courses to choose from. That’s also something the Windsor Northwest Union board member Frank Russell wants to see.

“I think it’s a matter of sitting with members of the other boards and with administrators and teachers and saying, well, what can we do with this new structure?” Russell said.

Some schools, including Rochester, are already trying experiments to expand curricula. Principal Cathy Knight says high schoolers may now take online classes from the Community College of Vermont and Brigham Young University. And guest instructors teach subjects in response to student demand.

“We sit down with the students and look at what we are offering and if it isn’t available then we go from there," she said. With the merger, she hopes students from other schools will take tech courses in Rochester, and expects some Rochester students to choose, perhaps, arts courses in Royalton.

Some worry that consolidation will close struggling local schools. But Wright believes that pooling their resources will help them survive, even if, as Gov. Peter Shumlin has recommended, state subsidies for the small schools are cut. But one Rochester school board member wishes the state handed out more explicit advice, not just mandates to merge and grant money for planning.

“It’s kind of odd that they force us to do something but they don’t tell us how to do it. They don’t tell us anything how to do it,”said Jeff Sherwin, acting chair of the Rochester School Board.

While he doesn’t openly oppose the merger, he’s taking a wait-and-see attitude about whether it saves any money.

But Meg Powden, the interim superintendent who will lose her job to the merger, supports it wholeheartedly.

“I chose to come here because I believe in the consolidation process; I believe it’s the right thing to do for our state, to work on merging our supervisory unions,” Powden said.

Credit courtesy Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union
A map shows how two supervisory unions would be combined into Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union.

With state board approval expected, this merger would take effect in July 2016. Bethel, Granville, Hancock, Rochester and Stockbridge will join districts of Chelsea, Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge. Pittsfield has voted to link up with Woodstock, rather than join the new Orange-Windsor Union.

Update: 2:28 p.m. 1/20  The State Board of Education has approved the dissolution of the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union, and the integration of Stockbridge, Bethel, Rochester, Granville, and Hancock into Orange Windsor Supervisory Union effective July 1, 2016.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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