WILLIAMSTOWN — A committee that is solidly behind the proposed merger of pre-K-12 school districts in Williamstown and neighboring Northfield is already thinking past next week’s pivotal meeting with the state Board of Education.
Amid cautious optimism that the state board will bless their Act 46-inspired merger proposal when it meets Tuesday in Barre, committee members this week talked about the importance of “optics” and “outreach” in the run-up to May 2 special elections that have tentatively been scheduled in both communities.
Committee members agreed the hard work, persuading each other that their Exit 5 alliance makes sense, may be over, but the heavy lifting — convincing voters to support the plan — remains a big bit of unfinished business.
Committee member Eilis O’Herlihy underscored that fact during a Thursday night meeting that she attended by phone.
One of five Northfield representatives on the nine-member committee, O’Herlihy voted against seeking state approval for the proposed school district merger without bothering to elaborate.
“No,” she said triggering the need for a roll call vote that revealed she was a minority of one.
Chairman Rama Schneider warned that O’Herlihy will have plenty of company if the May 2 special elections go off as planned.
“If 33 percent of the people don’t vote ‘no,’ I’ll be surprised,” Schneider said, stressing the importance of developing a comprehensive communications campaign.
“We need to think about how we are going to reach out to people,” he said.
An informational brochure is in the works, political-style road signs are being discussed, and open houses in both school systems are in the works. Members agreed that using a mix of traditional and social media will be a must.
Schneider said the committee could learn a lesson from last year’s failed vote in the nearby Barre Supervisory Union.
Though that state- sanctioned merger was overwhelmingly approved by Barre City voters, it failed in Barre Town following what Schneider described as a “ last- minute, sudden surge of anti-merger information.”
Christine Motyka agreed, noting the committee in Barre was caught off guard and ill-prepared to react to an eleventh-hour campaign that successfully scuttled the merger.
Schneider said those who support the proposed Williamstown-Northfield merger must be ready to rapidly respond to efforts to undermine it with information.
“We need to make sure that we get out ahead of the negative comments that are going to come out,” he said.
Committee members are keenly aware that every decision they make could be used to undermine the proposed merger. That was evident again Thursday night when they were extra careful about how they handled a relatively routine decision when asked to identify a transitional supervisory union for the merged district.
Williamstown is a member of the Orange North Supervisory Union and Northfield belongs to the Washington South Supervisory Union.
Picking Orange North over Washington South posed an “optics” problem, according to Northfield representatives Peter Evans and Emily Grey.
Grey suggested steering clear of identifying either supervisory union, while agreeing that administrative support for the new board would come from Orange North if the merger is approved.
O’Herlihy cast the lone vote against Grey’s hairsplitting motion, even as Motyka openly wondered whether it was necessary.
Washington South is currently relying on Orange North for some administrative services — a cost-saving arrangement that has proven mutually beneficial.
“If it (the merger) passes, it’s because people are happy with the collaboration and the relationship (between Northfield and Williamstown),” Motyka said.
First, the state board needs to sign off on the proposal, which will be considered Tuesday along with a separate merger involving Williamstown’s partners in the Orange North Supervisory Union. Orange and Washington have proposed merging their separate pre- K-8 school systems into one district.
With the state board’s blessing and voter approval, the two merged districts would share a supervisory union.