(Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories looking at how the issue of school choice is complicating the push for districts to merge.)
Poor Roxbury is like the wallflower at the big dance reaching out for partners and being sidelined left and right. Pretty much in the geographic center of Vermont, with no alike school districts nearby that it could merge with, little Roxbury has found itself with the last cup at an empty punch bowl.
Roxbury operates classrooms for 60 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade and pays tuition for 39 students in grades seven through 12.
It is part of Washington South Supervisory Union along with Northfield. Last spring, when passage of Act 46 — the law pushing school districts to merge — looked likely, Roxbury School Board members started having discussions with Northfield and other communities to consider the options, according to Jon Guiffre, chair of the Roxbury board.
“We were trying to be ahead of the curve,” Guiffre said. The focus was on finding the best scenario that would provide the most opportunities for the students, and a reduction in tax rates wouldn’t hurt, Guiffre said.
A number of Roxbury’s tuition students go to U-32, which is in East Montpelier and part of Washington Central Supervisory Union. But when Roxbury and Northfield approached U-32 about unifying, it said no, Guiffre said.
That wasn’t surprising, he said, since Washington Central is big enough that it doesn’t have to change to comply with Act 46, and agreeing to a formal merger study that binds it to a town vote would limit its options.
Act 46 offers two main merger study options that have grant money associated with them: an exploratory study and a formal 706 study. The first is flexible and meant to consider the feasibility of a merger among the parties. It provides $5,000 to hire a consultant or lawyer, or both. School districts can engage in multiple exploratory studies.
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The second brings reimbursement of up to $20,000 and is meant for legal and consulting services needed to prepare articles of agreement to be presented to the State Board of Education as a merger request.
To Roxbury’s south, Randolph, Braintree and Brookfield voted for unification on Town Meeting Day. They formed a regional education district that they had been considering for some time.
According to Guiffre, they welcomed Roxbury to join them last summer, but because they were so far down the path to unification it didn’t look like the Roxbury community would have much say in what the district looked like for the future of its kids, according to Guiffre.
Roxbury was also committed to working with Northfield, so they looked at other options that seemed more in line with the two communities’ goals.
Washington West Supervisory Union is on the other side of a mountain ridge and is already planning a spring unification vote for Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, Warren and Waterbury.
That left Orange North Supervisory Union, which operates schools in Williamstown, Orange and Washington. “We are still over a mountain, but it is more navigable in the winter than going west,” Guiffre said. Through the summer and fall they discussed building a preferred structure and taking advantage of the full array of tax savings for mergers.
This type of merger forms a single supervisory union responsible for educating all students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with one school board and has to be operational by July 1, 2017.
Then the State Board of Education announced that districts that do not operate the same grades — paying tuition for students in other grades to attend schools elsewhere — cannot join into the preferred merger structure.
That is when talks stalled. Orange and Washington operate pre-kindergarten through eighth grade; Northfield and Williamstown operate all grades; and Roxbury’s elementary school runs through grade six.
Guiffre made an appointment with the education secretary and took Roxbury’s case to the agency. He said he walked away crestfallen after hearing that their plan would violate the state’s constitution because it would create unequal educational opportunities for students in the same grades in the same school district.
“We thought we created a fairly reasonable scenario. But Orange and Washington are not likely to drop seventh and eighth grade, and Roxbury can’t physically add seven and eight. The only way would be to designate that Roxbury students go to Orange or Washington, but that is a 40-minute bus ride. And then they would go somewhere else for high school. It is not really a practical solution,” Guiffre said.
His meeting was in late December. When he shared the outcome with the Roxbury board, it was January. “We were sitting there in January looking at options, and we had none,” he said.
Roxbury returned to Orange Southwest Supervisory Union, asking to join up again. It was invited to do so, but it would have had to take a vote on Town Meeting Day, and that was just too soon.
“It clearly was not possible from our standpoint. We already had our warnings at the printers by the time I heard from them,” Guiffre said.
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Since then, Roxbury has reached out to all of the surrounding communities and asked to become an “advisable district” to existing formal unification studies. It means the town likely will have to change the grades it operates or tuitions to fit in.
Guiffre said he is frustrated because his community has striven to make something work and has been beaten back at every turn. Now the pressure is on: “Even though we were trying to be ahead of the curve we kept getting sidetracked. Now we have 15 months before significant tax implications are levied against us,” he said.
It would help, he said, if the Legislature would open up the timeline as it did with Act 166, the universal pre-kindergarten law, and give towns that are “struggling to find solutions more time to get this done.”
(Editor’s note: This story was corrected March 9 at 3:45 p.m.)
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