The Windsor Southeast Act 46 study committee is envisioning what a new regional high school in the Upper Valley would look like.
The school, initially dubbed The Mountain Academy, would unify four towns. In order for the initiative to work, the three towns that now tuition students to other public and private high schools would send students to one public regional high school.
The unified high school for Windsor, Hartland, West Windsor and Weathersfield would be a preferred governance structure under Act 46, the state’s school district consolidation law, and it is the first of several merger options that the study group is vetting. Some members of the group oppose the unified high school and want look at alternative governance structures that isn’t prescribed by the law.
The study committee has had a hard time finding a way to merge school districts because each town has a different operating system. Windsor operates schools for all grades K-12, while Hartland and Weathersfield have K-8 schools and tuition high school students and West Windsor has a K-6 school and tuitions students in grades 7-12.
The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union has struggled to find an operating structure that would work under Act 46. That’s because the state law does not allow newly merged school districts (which would have one school board with representatives from each town, as opposed to the current scenario with four separate school boards for each town) to both tuition out students and operate a school.
Peter Clarke, a facilitator hired by the supervisory union to help committee sort through the options, started with the unified union district.
Superintendent David Baker said this was the best approach. “It seems like Peter Clarke wants to take one option and thoroughly investigate it before we move onto option two. That seems like a good plan.”
To help get the committee members to focus on the first option they chose to vet, Clarke had members of the public join committee members in small groups made up of representatives from each community discuss what they would want a graduate of the Mountain Academy to know and be able to do. He called the exercise a “portrait of a graduate.”
Clarke said that in a unified district community members need to have trust based on the idea that “the person representing me represents not the town they come from but every single child” in the school district.
The small groups said they wanted students to experience a rigorous academic education and hands on learning options that together would prepare them for college or work after high school. Words such as robust, broad based, rich and high quality were used. They also talked about wanting students to have access to individual learning plans and dual enrollment programs with colleges both of which are embedded in Vermont’s public schools through Act 77 known as flexible pathways.
“Eventually, you have to come down to what would this cost and where are the potential resources,” said Clarke.
As part of the process, the group will have to figure out budgets for each option and project them out for at least five years.
Right now, Windsor High School has 233 students, 83 of these students tuition in from Hartland, Weathersfield and West Windsor. The budget for the Windsor School district is $9,897,160 this year and they get a little more than $1.4 million in tuition from the three towns, according to Clarke.
The documents Clarke presented drew a stark picture: as many as 216 students are tuitioned outside of the supervisory union. West Windsor tuitions 44 students, 14 to Windsor High School and 30 elsewhere (Woodstock) at a cost of $735,661. Weathersfield has 105 students and tuition 50 to Windsor and 55 elsewhere (Springfield) at a cost of $1,710,801. Both of these towns have the most to lose if the committee chooses not to create a unified union and instead pursue an alternative governance plan because West Windsor will lose a small schools grant and both will be denied the protections against declining student enrollments known as hold harmless.
Hartland has 150 students and only 19 chose to go to Windsor High School, another 131 chose to go elsewhere including Woodstock, Hartford High School, Hanover High School in New Hampshire and the private schools of Thetford Academy and The Sharon Academy. They spend $2,588,869 to tuition students outside of the current supervisory union.
The three sending towns spend more than $5 million combined on high school tuition.
Clarke estimates that by sending all their students to a new unified union high school they could put $3.6 million towards a new school.
Windsor resident Win Townsend, who chairs the Act 46 Committee, saw the lack of Hartland students attending Windsor High as a problem. He said that there has been a long history of “fabulous” Hartland students attending Windsor and showing real leadership among their peers. But if only 19 students out of 150 ninth to twelfth graders are going to Windsor something’s wrong. “I suspect there are teachers or administrators steering the 8th graders in Hartland away from Windsor.”
Baker says he’s optimistic that the districts can make a decision by spring.