Committee seeks public input on school district consolidation

July 28, 2011

By Adam White
Observer staff
The potential Regional Educational District consolidation could lead to more efficient operations and increased accountability for student outcomes at schools like Williston Central, but it might also result in a tax increase and reduction in elected school board officials representing the town, according to study committee member Charlie Magill. (Observer photo by Adam White)

Gathering public input is the next step for a study committee formed by the Chittenden South Supervisory Union Boards of School Directors and tasked with exploring consolidation into a Regional Educational District (RED).

The 12-member committee held the last of six scheduled meetings on July 18, at which discussion continued about the pros and cons of merging the seven Chittenden South school boards into a single entity. Champlain Valley Union School Board chair Jeanne Jensen, who is on the study committee simply as a Williston resident, said that some form of public forum is planned before a final recommendation is made to the State Board of Education this fall.

“We could not give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down without the approval of the community,” said Jensen, who noted that the forum won’t take place until school resumes. “We need to give people the opportunity to express their thoughts, and ideas that we didn’t come up with.”

That input will then be used to draft a report to the BOE, in which the CSSU outlines its goals for the consolidation and its criteria for implementing it.

A similar report has already been submitted by the Chittenden East Supervisory Union. Fifteen members representing the seven Boards within that Union put together 18 Articles of Agreement, to be approved by each district in order to create a RED for Chittenden East. The CESD report also included a detailed cost benefit analysis outlining issues such as improved student opportunities and outcomes, staffing, data collection and reporting and budgeting.

The RED did not progress any further than that stage for CESD, however. Two of the five communities from that district voted against the consolidation in June: Huntington and Richmond. Addison Northwest also shot down the RED with its first community vote.

“All of the essential communities have to vote ‘yes’ in order for it to pass,” Jensen said.

Charlie Magill, a Williston community member who served a decade-long stint on the CVU School Board in the 1970s and 80s, said that taxes played a role in Addison Northwest’s rejection. He said that Vergennes — which faced a tax increase under the proposed consolidation, which was first approved — voted against it during a re-vote brought about through a petition.

Magill said Williston could face similar issues under the proposed RED.

“Williston has the lowest per-pupil cost in the entire Supervisory Union,” Magill said. “The town would probably see some tax increase as per-pupil cost was averaged out over a combined school district.”

Jensen said the CSSU study committee is “pretty close” to deciding what its recommendation will be, though she added any further elaboration prior to the public forum phase would be premature. Jensen did say that certain elements of the consolidation that might appeal to other districts do not exist for CSSU.

“There are not significant financial gains for us, because we’ve already taken a lot of those measures,” Jensen said. “We can’t go to the community and say, ‘this is going to save us a million dollars.’ That sort of low-hanging fruit is gone.”

Another possible downside to the RED is that Williston would stand to lose a bit of its representative power under the proposed reconfiguration, according to Magill.

“The town currently has four members on the CVU School Board, and five on the Williston Board,” Magill said. “That number would go down to four on the combined board; Williston would lose more than half of its elected school board officials.”

Jensen said that possible benefits of the RED include increased accountability for student outcomes, as well as more efficient communication between the representatives on what are now seven separate school boards.

“We have to decide if those intangibles are worth disrupting the system we have now,” Jensen said.