Home News Archive Montpelier-Roxbury School Merger Panel Appointed, Will Vote on Northfield Request

Montpelier-Roxbury School Merger Panel Appointed, Will Vote on Northfield Request

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by Phil Dodd

The newly formed seven-person Montpelier-Roxbury School Merger Committee will hold its second meeting Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. in Roxbury, at which time it is expected to decide on a request by the Northfield School Board for Northfield to be an “advisable” member of the Montpelier-Roxbury committee.

Northfield can’t be an official participant in the merger study committee because it is already part of a merger study committee with Williamstown. That committee is pushing ahead with plans to put a Northfield-Williamstown merger before voters in the two towns in April. But Northfield is hedging its bets by asking to participate, informally, in the Montpelier-Roxbury talks.

The Montpelier-Roxbury committee could decide to let Northfield sit at the table as an informal member, or simply have Northfield sit in the audience as a member of the public, or it could even suggest to Northfield that a merger between the three school districts is unlikely to work out, according to Steve Dale, who has been hired as a consultant by the Montpelier-Roxbury committee and is being paid from a state grant.

The idea that Montpelier could merge with either town’s school system is a relatively recent one, and some school board members say it has come as a surprise to Montpelier residents who until the last three months, had only heard talk about possibly joining forces with U-32. Mergers are being promoted by Act 46, a state law designed to encourage, and eventually force, small school districts to merge with other districts. The theory behind the law is that mergers — at a time of declining statewide school enrollment — will reduce school costs and provide more academic options to students.

Montpelier School Board chair Michelle Braun said that, even though the Montpelier school district is one of only a couple of school districts statewide seeing an increase in student numbers and is large enough that it does not have immediate Act 46 pressure to merge with anyone, the school board did send Act 46 letters of inquiry to both U-32 and the supervisory union that includes Northfield and Roxbury. The Montpelier community has always looked to U-32 as a logical merger partner, Braun said. But U-32 is not ready to talk merger with others because it is still wrestling with whether all of the districts within U-32 should combine and have one school board.

Braun commented that “it may be easier to say yes” to Roxbury, which has about 50 students, than to Northfield, even though Roxbury is farther away. “A merger would provide financial advantages and obvious educational opportunities for Roxbury,” she said. “Montpelier would get the benefit of more students and additional revenue, reducing the tax rate. Roxbury has no debt and the school is part of the town hall, and seems to be in good shape.”

“When you look at Northfield, they are much bigger than Roxbury, with almost 600 students.”

Braun continued. “We don’t have the capacity to bring their kids here, so we would still need multiple schools. Where is the benefit? Maybe we could have one superintendent, but there is not a big savings there.”

Northfield would also have a much larger say than Roxbury in how a combined district was operated, since its population of 6,200 is only a bit smaller than Montpelier’s. If only Montpelier and Roxbury merged, Montpelier could pretty much call the shots, since Roxbury has only 700 residents.

At this point, however, Braun and the Montpelier School Board have no direct vote on any merger matters. Under Act 46, all authority to decide whether to merge and, if so, what the terms of the merger would be are up to the Montpelier-Roxbury merger study committee. Any recommendation by the committee to merge would have to be approved by the state and also by a majority of voters in each of the participating towns. After a vote in favor of a merger, school budgets would be approved by a majority of the combined districts’ voters.

The Montpelier School Board voted to create a Roxbury merger committee in October, and in mid-December it appointed five members to the merger committee. Three are school board members: Steve Hingtgen, Tina Muncy and Jim Murphy. Two are community members — Paul Carnahan and Nancy Read — who were selected by the Board from a pool of six people who applied, according to Braun. Roxbury has appointed Roxbury School Board member Ryan Zajac and Roxbury School Board Chair Jon Guiffre, who was elected chair of the joint merger study committee at its first meeting on Dec. 19.

Because Montpelier has 10 times as many students as Roxbury, it will have greater voting power on the merger study committee. Each Montpelier member will get two votes, while the Roxbury members will only get a half a vote each, Braun said. Braun said the merger committee may try to reach a conclusion by early May, so if there is a vote and it is defeated, there might still be time to have a revote before June 30.

A Montpelier-Roxbury merger would presumably involve retaining an elementary school in Roxbury, and busing middle school and high school students to Montpelier. Currently, Roxbury has school choice for older students, with many students reportedly choosing to attend U-32.

What would be the financial advantages of any merger? For one thing, Dale said, if they do not take action to merge by July 1, small towns like Roxbury stand to lose their small school grants and the ability to count so-called “phantom” students, a funding provision meant to cushion declining student enrollment. If the districts do merge, the new combined district gets to keep those features, although Dale said “the impact of those benefits would be greater in Roxbury than in Montpelier.”

Dale said another financial incentive under state law is that districts that vote to merge by June 30 get four years of property tax rate reductions: eight cents in the first year, six cents in the second, four cents in the third, and two cents in the fourth year.

Another provision of state law awards similar tax benefits to districts if they combine into a single district board by July 1, 2019, Dale said. “Technically, Montpelier and Roxbury could take longer to decide, but they seem committed to deciding something sooner … my advice is to proceed with deliberateness,” he said. Moreover, by that date the state will have already made plans to force some mergers.

Under Act 46, districts are encouraged to merge by Nov. 30, Dale said. After that, the Vermont Agency of Education Secretary will put together a proposed statewide merger plans for some districts that have not yet merged and make it public by June 1, 2018, Dale said. At that point, the state Board of Education will have six months to hold hearings and deliberate on the plan, then by Nov. 30, 2018 it will issue a final order for all mandated statewide mergers. Those mergers would be effective on July 1, 2019, Dale said.

Dale explained that the state could order Montpelier to merge with another district at that point, even though Montpelier has a relatively large school system. However, he said, if Montpelier or any other district has already merged with another district to create a unified district, the state will not be allowed to force them to merge with another district. “If a district has merged already, it is exempt from the state plan, Dale said. “If they haven’t merged, the state board could come and tell them what to do.” Thus, for example, if Montpelier merges with Roxbury, the new district cannot later be forced to take Northfield if it does not want to.

Dale did note that not everything related to Act 46 has been ironed out yet. And some legislators are already planning to introduce new bills to tweak the Act 46 process. All of this, in addition to the deadlines and inherent complications in the law, are creating a challenging landscape for Vermont school districts, even for relatively large and healthy districts like Montpelier’s.

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