The Warren Select Board dealt with questions surrounding Act 46, a new law that aims to consolidate school governance and budgets across the state.
Warren resident Valerie Bigelow, who is running against Warren resident Rosemarie White for the only contested seat on the consolidated board, addressed the board at their May 24 meeting.
She said that while the law may have a positive impact on schools with declining enrollment and small class sizes, Warren Elementary School (WES) does not currently face such issues.
At WES, enrollment and student performance are up, and voting not to consolidate is an option, Bigelow said.
A vote against the merger would allow the school and Warren residents to retain what is left of their local voice and may attract families to buy homes in the town. “Our school really drives our home market value,” she said.
Warren resident Ashley Woods said that Washington West Supervisory Union’s (WWSU) superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease has not considered exploring options outside of an accelerated version of the merger, which comes with up to five years of tax savings and other financial benefits.
“There’s leadership and then there’s being pushed around,” Woods said, explaining that the supervisory union has been talking about Harwood Union High School’s (HUHS) financial demise since she was a student in the 1980s.
She said that there is no reason to rush into the accelerated merger for a “token offering” of five or less years of tax savings.
WWSU director of finances Michelle Baker has calculated that if Valley towns vote to consolidate early, Warren taxpayers could save about $2,133 over a five-year period. This figure is based on the average $300,000 property value and is subject to change.
With tax incentives coming from the state’s education fund, which draws on property taxes, “It’s coming from us [the taxpayers] anyway,” said Warren resident Meredith Jacoby.
She explained that while consolidation occurred for many states beginning in the 1980s, “Over time it’s shown that it doesn’t save money, except when it comes with school closures and loss of jobs.”
Some districts in Maine, Jacoby said, are spending more money to deconsolidate after the original effort failed.
Warren Select Board member Bob Ackland told residents, “I don’t have any faith that they’re [the state] going to save us any money.”
But he asked those residents before him, “How could we achieve economies within the schools if we’re not part of the supervisory union?”
He said that resources must be shared among schools and “We don’t need three principals in The Valley making close to $100,000 each.”
Bigelow said that Valley schools are already sharing resources like bus service and special educators. “That would continue to happen if we don’t merge.”
“There will still be a principal in every school. I doubt they’ll take pay cuts,” Woods added.
Ackland said that local schools do not have control – this rests with the supervisory union. “We can’t do anything about it as a select board, but we appreciate you coming and sharing your thoughts.”
“It’s a system that’s in Montpelier and until something in Montpelier changes, it’s frustrating,” Ackland said.
“The system is rigged. They wanted it that way. They made it that way,” said select board chair Andy Cunningham, regarding Montpelier.
Warren resident Barry Simpson said that when he recently attended a series of public discussions about the future of education at HUHS, he realized that with the onset of technology, globalization and climate change, students will need to be more adaptable and creative in solving societal problems.
“You don’t start out learning something that somebody already knows. ... You’re going to have to figure out something that nobody has known before,” Simpson said.
“I think the result is going to have to come from either individual schools or from school districts,” he explained. “My dilemma is whether or not it would happen better at Warren School with its own internal governance or whether we’re going to see the governance and the taxation and budgeting to a larger authority.”
Bigelow said that the idea for Warren taxpayers to step back from the accelerated version of the law to look at alternative options such as independent status for WES comes out of “looking at things from a different angle.”
Warren voters and all voters in the district will vote on whether to consolidate early next week on June 7.