BARRE — A shotgun wedding wasn’t their preference, but Barre school commissioners are urging the state Board of Education to pull the trigger on an Act 46-inspired school district merger, notwithstanding the objections of their counterparts in Barre Town.
Proving two can play the letter-writing game, school commissioners unanimously agreed Monday night to send one of their own to the state board, which is poised to make a threshold decision regarding what should become of the two-town, three-school Barre Supervisory Union starting next July.
The state board’s daylong session at the Barre Elks Lodge on Thursday is expected to produce a final draft of a plan for dealing with school districts that were unable or unwilling to voluntarily merge under the three-year-old law — Act 46 — that encouraged and incentivized such alliances.
Now Act 46 could actually compel them, prompting both local school boards to swiftly shift into letter-writing mode following Barre Town voters’ third straight rejection of a proposed merger.
Days after Barre Town school directors agreed to request a reprieve in writing, Barre school commissioners endorsed a “forced merger” — one that would bring both communities’ pre-K-8 school districts, as well as jointly owned, but separately run Spaulding High School, under the purview of one new board.
Chairwoman Sonya Spaulding said the Barre board should make the case for a three-district merger she argued is in the best interest of students and taxpayers from both communities.
“I feel strongly that we should merge,” said Spaulding, who arrived at Monday’s meeting, letter — and election results — in hand.
Spaulding said she didn’t relish the prospect of an “arranged marriage,” but took some solace in the fact the twice-defeated merger consistently enjoyed the support of a majority of voters in the two-town supervisory union.
That was true two years ago when Barre voters approved the merger, 2,069-694, only to see it fail in the Barre Town, 1,611-2,108. Despite the decidedly different results, Spaulding noted a clear majority of voters in both communities supported the failed merger, 3,680-2,802.
The same was true last week when Barre voters approved a modified version of the earlier merger, 1,887-567, and it failed, 1,262-2,106 in Barre Town. Though both communities needed to separately approve the merger for it to pass, the combined results, 3,149-2,673, showed a majority of the those who cast ballots on Election Day supported the proposal.
Though nearly 1,900 more Barre Town voters cast ballots in the two November elections – 956 in 2016 and 914 last week – the combined results reflect solid support for the merger, 6,829-5,475.
Even if you factor in the results of the re-vote that was petitioned by town voters in the wake of the 2016 election – a majority of votes cast for the merger since it was first proposed – 7,311 – comfortably exceeds those cast against it – 6,634.
Spaulding referenced those results in a letter that asks the state board to: “… honor the majority of the voters in both communities” and impose the twice-failed merger.
Even without the tax incentives that would have accompanied a voluntary merger, Spaulding said there are good reasons to support a shift in governance structures that would make one board responsible for all students from pre-school through high school.
“I can see the benefit of looking at things with a bigger lens,” she said.
The letter Spaulding drafted on the board’s behalf, acknowledged the Barre districts meet many of the goals outlined in Act 46, but indicated there is room for improvement.
“We feel one merged district would provide greater flexibility to manage, share and transfer resources,” she wrote, adding that while the districts as they are currently composed are fiscally responsible: “… a merged district would provide more efficiencies, economies of scale and a greater opportunity for transparency and accountability.”
Though the letter signed by the board contends the Barre districts are providing “an outstanding education at a great value,” it acknowledges the opportunity to “do more” on both fronts.
“As a merged district, we believe we can provide more equitable and richer educational opportunities at the modest cost our communities have come to expect,” it states.
Spaulding said crafting the letter required some “restraint” given the unflattering and unwarranted portrayal of the city and its school system by some town residents in the run-up to last week’s election.
“It’s sad and frustrating, but we’ll move past it hopefully for all of our students because I think all of our students can benefit from working together and finding a way to cooperate,” Spaulding said, expressing a sentiment shared by others on the board.
“We’ll take the high road and hopefully the state Board of Education will agree with us,” she added, predicting Thursday’s state board meeting should go a long way toward answering that question.