October 30, 2014

RED merger hits pause button

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Vote delayed as committee examines central issues

Sept. 29, 2011

By Adam White

Observer staff

A vote on the proposed merger of all Chittenden South Supervisory Union school districts, such as Williston, into one Regional Educational District was delayed on Sept. 22. (File photo)

Merging is best accomplished at a safe speed — especially when this many moving parts are involved.

The Chittenden South Supervisory Union’s Consolidation Study Committee was scheduled to vote on the proposed Regional Educational District merger on Sept. 22, but chose to delay its decision until the issue can be more closely examined.

A motion was made by committee member and Champlain Valley Union High School Board chair Jeanne Jensen that “the committee acknowledges the support of the formation of a RED and has further decided to investigate several elements of a RED prior to taking final action as a committee.” The motion passed unanimously.

“We just weren’t ready,” said committee member Colleen MacKinnon. “It wasn’t political or divisive — we just needed more time.”

The committee will hold further discussions about the merger at its next meeting on Oct. 12, but is not expected to vote at that time, according to Jensen.

“We put that meeting in place in order to have more discussions about it,” Jensen said in a subsequent telephone interview. “It’s still very fuzzy. It’s hard for us to come up with hard facts, and say whether (the merger) is good or bad.”

The primary issues delaying a vote are uncertainty over the structure of local governance councils following the merger, and the degree of improvement that would result in the area of student outcomes.

“If you don’t have compelling reasons to make changes to improve our educational system, why do it?” MacKinnon asked.

Jensen said the potential makeup of local councils has not been defined in any concrete manner, and that using other consolidated districts as examples is difficult due to variations in the number and sizes of towns involved.

“Our research has been a little murky, because most of the places that have multiple districts are single towns,” Jensen said. “Comparing (CSSU) to other districts in Vermont that have multiple schools in them doesn’t really help.”

Previous committee discussions about the RED merger highlighted potential student outcome benefits, including “opportunity for strategic K-12 plans for solving problems” with issues like school climate and substance abuse. The merger might also assist with creating a stronger K-12 focus for the district as a whole, and make the assessment process easier.

But committee members aren’t comfortable enough with the certainty of those benefits to give thumbs-up or down to the RED yet, according to Jensen.

“Probably the biggest question we have is whether the consolidation is going to result in better student outcomes,” Jensen said. “At this point, we need to be able to crisply answer that question before we can come to a decision.”

Attendance also played at least some role in the delayed vote. Committee members Charlie Magill, Russ Caffry and Rich Lowrey were absent from the meeting, while Lisa Falcone and Sue Thibault departed early.

“We had a significant number of committee members missing from the conversation,” MacKinnon said.

Minutes from the meeting indicate that the committee deemed the potential of the RED to be “phenomenal,” with “great possibilities by taking a leap of faith.” It was also suggested that a public vote on the merger could produce a definitive split, in which “people with no kids in school will vote their pocketbooks.”

Jensen said committee members would spend the next few weeks studying research materials and case studies of previous educational mergers, including a report formulated from a study at Ohio University that was released by the National Education Policy Center in February.

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