By Rachel Goff
Threatened by the state's most recent effort to increase efficiency in Vermont's public education system, Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) came out in full force at the State Board of Education's (SBE) meeting on Tuesday, December 17, to advocate against the Agency of Education's (AOE) plan to dissolve Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union (WNWSU) and add Hancock and Granville to WWSU, effectively winning a delay on the final vote and the chance to come up with another solution.
WNWSU serves the communities of Bethel, Rochester, Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Hancock and Granville. In recent years, the supervisory union has suffered from declining enrollment, with student populations totaling less than 500. At their meeting on November 27, the SBE elected via straw vote to move forward with the AOE's plan to dissolve WNWSU, adding Bethel and Rochester to Orange Windsor Supervisory Union (OWSU), Pittsfield and Stockbridge to Windsor Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) and Hancock and Granville to WWSU.
The AOE's redistricting plan calculated that assuming administrative responsibility for Hancock and Granville would increase WWSU's budget by only $20,000, and that WWSU will recoup roughly $19,000 of that increase in reductions in local assessments to WWSU's six towns, but WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert said otherwise.
Hancock and Granville, which both have school choice, currently pay $53,000 for their administrative services, "so how can they expect us to do it for $20,000?" Scheffert said at a December 6 meeting of the Harwood Union School Board and the WWSU executive committee. WWSU's local assessments would need to increase by approximately $131,000 "to actually pull this off," she said.
Without that money, the redistricting plan would likely mean "significant increases" to the budgets of all six existing schools within WWSU, Scheffert said, including those of Warren Elementary School, Fayston Elementary School, Waitsfield Elementary School, Moretown Elementary School and Harwood Union Middle School and High School.
Both Hancock and Granville have pre-kindergarten through grade 12 school choice and attend 15 different schools, which would mean WWSU would have to establish a relationship and communicate on a regular basis with schools as far away as Middlebury, Killington and Bristol.
In short, the AOE's redistricting plan "was not an impact study," Scheffert said. "They did not take into consideration our capacity at our central office," she said—not financially nor managerially—explaining that the increase in responsibility to an already large supervisory union would make it much harder to attract qualified administrators for WWSU positions.
Currently, only 3 out of the 68 students from Hancock and Granville attend WWSU schools. And the bottom line is, "If they're not attending our schools, why should we be managing them and their individual education plans?" WWSU director of operations and finance Michelle Baker said.
Students, under Vermont's education funding program, count essentially as revenue for schools because higher attendance rates mean lower per pupil costs.
"I think we need to look at education as a service industry," Fayston School Board chair Heidi Spear said, "and there isn't a service industry out there that would say it's a good idea to separate costs from revenue."
In short, "students should be served by the supervisory unions of the school they are attending, or are inclined to attend," Scheffert said. "WWSU would happily enroll all the students from Hancock and Granville in our schools," she said.
If they're going to become part of WWSU, "make them complete members of the family," Scheffert proposed, but to make them complete members of the family would require both towns to vote out their current school choice policies.
Scheffert stated her opposition to the AOE's redistricting plan at the November 27 meeting, as did the superintendents of the two other supervisory unions that would be affected by the redistricting plan, but the AOE's affirmative straw vote suggested it did not consider their concerns. "This [has all been] pretty quiet," Scheffert said, explaining that the state was attempting to force the decision through without board or voter approval.
Indeed, Spear said that she attended a training session earlier this year about maximizing efficiency across the supervisory unions, "and this was one of the examples," she said. "They've already decided that this is going to happen." As WWSU plans to oppose the redistricting, "we're going to have to be really loud," she said.
Last week, WWSU outlined plans to send letters to the state and write op-ed pieces to gain media attention, and at the SBE's final vote on the redistricting plan on Tuesday, December 17, in South Burlington, their efforts came through.
After hearing testimony from Scheffert and WWSU board members, the SBE decided to postpone a decision on the redistricting plan until June 1, 2014. In the meantime, the SBE charged the superintendents of the three supervisory unions who would have been affected by the plan to come together to come up with another solution.