Merger proposal revived as Woodford warns re-vote

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WOODFORD — The Woodford School Board on Wednesday voted unanimously to hold a re-vote on the Mount Anthony Unified School District merger proposal after it failed in November by just two votes.

The vote will take place on Jan. 9, with a public meeting the night before. The vote will be only on whether or not to approve the merger, according to the board's motion, which was made at their regular meeting on Wednesday afternoon. The results for electing representatives to the new district's board from November will remain in place.

School board member Dick Frantz said that the board had made the decision to re-warn the vote after speaking with residents throughout the small town. Many of the residents he spoke with expressed concerns about the projected tax increase for Woodford residents. Without the tax incentives, which expired on Nov. 30, Woodford could see a 16-cent increase on their tax rate when the new district would go into effect, based on current estimates, due to their per pupil spending being lower than the other districts. However, Frantz said, being part of a larger district could help protect the small school's financial viability moving forward. He pointed out that Woodford is currently set to lose its Small Schools Grant, which was worth about $38,000 this year, if it does not merge.

Many, Frantz said, thought that a 'No' vote would prevent a merger and protect their school. However, he pointed out that the state still has the final say on whether or not Woodford ends up merged, and the school could actually be more protected under the merger that is currently on the table. The articles of agreement place a five-year moratorium on school closures. After that point, the district board must pass a super-majority vote on two separate occasions, no less than one year apart, in order to close a school.

Woodford's re-vote has the potential to be hugely significant for the other Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union towns. The merger proposal would have needed positive votes in three out of the four voting towns to pass. Although in total the four communities supported the endeavor by a vote of 1,533 to 766, with Bennington voting 965-338 and Shaftsbury 322-176, Pownal and Woodford voted 'no,' by totals of 210-214 and 36-38, respectively. If Woodford were to pass the proposal in its re-vote, the merger of the districts would go forward.

Should the Woodford vote pass, the new MAUSD would go into operation on July 1, 2019, governed by a board that was elected during the voting in November. It would govern all students from Bennington, Shaftsbury, and Woodford, as well as middle and high school students from North Bennington and Pownal. North Bennington and Pownal would have representatives on the board, but they would have to recuse themselves from matters related to elementary education.

In the event that Woodford votes 'Yes,' Pownal's elementary school district will remain independent, barring a re-vote of their own. Like North Bennington, they would remain a part of the SVSU, alongside the new MAUSD, but would be operated by their own board. When the State Board of Education approves its statewide education plan next year, it is unclear what Pownal's status would be in such a situation.

According to the November results, that board would be made up of Chris Murphy, Robert Plunkett, Meridy Capella, and Jackie Kelly of Bennington, Tim Holbrook and Nelson Brownell of Pownal, Jeff Leake and David Durfee of Shaftsbury, and Mike Gahan of Woodford. No one from North Bennington ran for their two seats on the board, and the North Bennington Graded School District was not able to participate in electing the members of the board, as their school board chose not to warn the vote, as they would have been unable to participate in the elementary merger and keep their school choice.

There is a potential wrinkle in this process. Under Act 46, districts only have until Dec. 26 to submit reports under Section 9 of the 2015 law detailing the district's current ability to meet the goals of Act 46 and a proposal of how the district can either maintain its current structure, how it can work with other districts to form a different structure, or how it can enter into another model of joint activity. However, as the content of those reports could change drastically based on the outcome of Woodford's Jan. 9 vote, the SVSU's legal counsel has been in consultation with the Agency of Education to determine whether the deadline for submitting those reports could be extended until after the vote. Assistant superintendent Donna Leep said on Wednesday that the supervisory union still did not have a clear answer.

Frantz said that his intention was to keep working on the report, and submit it on schedule unless directed otherwise. Each district board is individually responsible for submitting its own report.

Many who opposed the MAUSD merger proposal, including Cindy Brownell of Pownal and Jackie Prue of Bennington, have argued that submitting a report to the state detailing how the SVSU is already meeting the goals of Act 46 without a merger is the best path forward.

Prue argued at the SVSU board meeting last week that the reports should be submitted, or at least crafted, as a group, rather than by each district board. "It is my belief that if the SVSU and its member districts if they want to control their own destinies need to work collectively on providing their reports as one group," she said. "We need as a group to state and support why we want to stay as we are. If we don't then it is more than likely the choices will be out of our hands."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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