CSSU merger approved

CSSU_logo_500By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

Williston voters showed up and were counted on Tuesday in a special election to determine whether or not the school districts across five communities should be merged into one. The result: Williston wanted to merge.

While turnout even for a special election was lower than usual – about 7 percent of the registered voters in Williston participated, according to the Town Clerk’s office – the majority of voters were in favor of the consolidation of Williston’s schools and Champlain Valley Union High School into one district that would encompass the towns of Charlotte, Hinesburg and Shelburne as well. Sixty-four percent of all voters approved of the move to merge, with 404 votes in favor, and 223 votes against.

St. George voters, who also passed the resolution by 77 percent, will now be a part of the new district (whereas previously they had paid tuition to Williston for primary schools, and had school choice for attending high school.)

The vote also determined the members of the new, 12-director school board. The board will replace what is currently seven different boards.

Williston has four seats on the board, replacing the five-member board now representing the town’s elementary schools. The new directors, as the role is called, are Kevin Mara, Brendan McMahon, Amanda Marvin and Erin Brady (who won the only contested seat, a 4-year term, over Gene McCue).

The district, which at 4,000 students will be the largest consolidated union in the state, will be called Champlain Valley School District. As of July 1, 2017, the Chittenden South Supervisory Union will dissolve, as will the Williston School District.

As they left the special election polling place on Tuesday, which was held at the Old Brick Church in the basement, some voters explained why they thought the merger was a good idea.

Carter Smith, who is a director of Special Education in Williston, said his ‘yes’ vote was inspired by the collaboration he’s benefitted from in his work, specifically by consolidating a district-wide special ed budget.

“We should all be together, working together,” he said. “I know that there’s some efficiencies we’ve already seen on the solution side, and we can see those efficiencies throughout the district,” he said. He was also concerned with the amount of work the superintendent had going between district boards. “The superintendent has to attend all these different meetings; it just seems like an efficient way for the superintendent to have one board to work with, and I think we already do so much work together as a school system, as a supervisory union, this would just make it official and overall, there’s dollars to be saved with that incentive.”

The Act 46 Study Committee has reported a savings of about $1.5 million over five years in earlier presentations, if just one board controlled the $70 million schools’ budget. In some part, that’s due to better spending and economies of scale, but also to the tax incentives offered by the state to districts that opted to merge before July 1, 2017.

Williston was one of the communities that saw a lower decrease in property taxes thanks to the incentive in projections by the committee — and the tax incentives decrease each year over five years — but for some voters that still made a difference.

“This illusion of local control that everybody talks about is not as important as it used to be 25 years ago. The state is going to force it to happen so we may as well be on the front end and get the financial advantages,” said ‘yes’ voter Zoe Erdman, who was on an earlier Act 46 study committee to investigate merging.

But over the weekend, a group of parents, including current Williston School Board member Josh Diamond, began to question the value of merging, and whether the benefits weren’t being exaggerated by district leadership in the weeks leading up to the vote.

Diamond, who did not run for a seat on the new district’s board, said he didn’t feel it was possible for a community member to effectively serve their own schools if he or she had to worry about other community schools as well.

“I signed on to be a school board member of the town of Williston,” said Diamond. “I didn’t sign on to be a school board member of the entire supervisory district… I didn’t feel I could discharge my fiduciary obligation effectively over five different communities,” he explained. “While I feel quite comfortable discharging that duty for our community, where I know my neighbors, I know the school, and I feel capable of providing that oversight, I felt that to do so over five school districts would require a level of engagement,” that he didn’t have, necessarily. Parents on a Facebook page aired concerns about district-wide decisions possibly impacting their educational choices, and many urged voters to vote ‘No’ on Tuesday.

Diamond, for his part, said he’d go with what the voters supported. “ If the community decides it supports consolidation, while I don’t think it’s in the best interests of our community, we live in a democracy and I will accept the decision.”

He did say he felt the existing school board would probably have very little relevance in the remainder of their term.