As the Warren school board continues to investigate the amount of a bond they will put forth for school repairs, the Act 46 study committee proceeded to strategize a successful accelerated merger.
At the committee’s March 9 meeting, Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease said that the “consternation around the Warren bond” — namely that many have voiced concern about the fairness of absorbing repair costs when districts are consolidated — is detracting from the many benefits of the accelerated merger.
“We’re forgetting the economic climate of the state,” she said, and “it’s one checkbook at the state.” She explained that districts within the WWSU will have to pay for the incentives that other state districts who do choose to consolidate in an accelerated manner will receive.
If WWSU districts are paying for others to receive incentives, while not receiving any benefits themselves, it will be financially difficult for the WWSU in future years.
She explained that if a majority of districts vote to merge, they could benefit from a waiver that would not penalize schools for spending beyond their spending caps. They would also be guaranteed that taxes would not rise more than 5 percent in the five years that follow a 2017 acceleration.
There are also cost savings from shared resources and improved efficiency. Such financial benefits would provide “a bit of a cushion while we figure out what we’ll do in a state that suffers from declining enrollment and economic development issues.”
“We’re part of that bigger picture,” she added.
In the past, board members have questioned whether the Warren school will be closed as the state seeks to consolidate school management and budgets under Act 46, but Scheffert Nease said that the closing of Warren school, due to its southern most location in the WWSU, is “pretty unlikely.”
RELUCTANCE TO MOVE QUICKLY
Still, Moretown representative and study committee chair Gabe Gilman said that Moretown board members wondered whether pursuing the accelerated option of the merger should be reconsidered.
“There’s been this rush to do it in an accelerated manner,” he said, while individual school boards and the Act 46 study committee as a whole could have more time to explore options and “let the dust settle” regarding Warren’s bond. Districts could still pursue all tax benefits after the first year of 10 cent savings that they would receive upon acceleration.
Gilman called the presentation of information on behalf of the study committee a “false dichotomy” — a logical fallacy that puts forth two options, when there are, in truth, more out there.
Warren board member Jen Watkins said, “I feel like we’re being told, you can merge now and have choice, or merge later and not have any choice, but there truly is a third legal, viable option, which is, we could choose not to merge, close down our public school and open an independent school.”
ONWARD WITH ACCELERATION
Gilman made a motion to take acceleration off the table for a public vote, but no second was received, and the board moved on.
Waterbury board member Alex Thomsen told Gilman that “to make a decision on behalf of your voters based on two or three board members is not giving them their [the voters] voice,” and, she added, “I’m not sure I want to spend another year doing this.”
Waitsfield representative and study committee vice chair Christine Sullivan said, “We’ve agreed to continue on a path of acceleration. We can’t have people coming here every meeting going, ‘Well maybe we should reconsider our agreement.’ An agreement is an agreement, and you have to stick to your word at some point in the process.”
She added that if Moretown “derails the process and wants to come back next year,” members of the consolidated board may not want to “include them in the discussion” — especially as Moretown has the highest per pupil spending cost in the WWSU.
“This was set up as a study committee, not a conclusion committee,” Gilman replied. “The idea was that we would study the costs and benefits — not determine the outcome from the beginning and then find the reasons later.”
The committee set four dates for public forums before a June 7 vote. The first will be held at Harwood Union High School on March 31 at 5:30 p.m.