EAST MONTPELIER – The public hearing on an evolving list of amendments to a document that would govern one of several state-ordered school districts is still set for Wednesday at U-32 Middle and High School, but support for putting them to a public vote in the five-town Washington Central Supervisory Union is softening.
Days before its scheduled roll out the proposal remains a work in progress, the committee that will have the last word on its contents technically hasn’t met, and those who have been working on it for weeks are suddenly split on whether a special election is warranted.
The committee will hold its first “official” meeting on Monday at 7 p.m. at Berlin Elementary School – a “courtesy” to the Berlin School Board, which will meet there earlier that evening and have the opportunity to appoint two additional members.
However, most of the committee’s members – including one who won’t be appointed until Monday night – met Thursday at U-32 to discuss amendments to default articles of agreement that, barring any voter-approved changes, will accompany the six-district merger recently imposed by the state.
The session spanned nearly three hours and opened with Worcester School Director Matthew DeGroot openly wondering whether the committee should spare voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester the confusion associated with special election tentatively scheduled for Feb. 19.
“I have really grave concerns about what this committee is doing,” DeGroot said, paraphrasing Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie “Jurassic Park.”
“I don’t want to be so busy thinking about whether we can do this that we don’t take the time to think about whether we should,” he said.
According to DeGroot, the modest changes the committee has tentatively agreed to aren’t “absolutely necessary” and weren’t worth contributing to the confusion that likely exists in the minds of many voters. Some of those voters, he said, are marginally aware the state ordered the Washington Central merger and may have heard four of the supervisory union’s six school boards are parties to a pending lawsuit challenging that decision.
That’s the backdrop for a special election DeGroot predicted would generate low turnout on a “random Tuesday” in February.
Kari Bradley, who represents East Montpelier on the U-32 School Board and Chris Winters, chairman of the school board in Berlin said they shared DeGroot’s concerns.
Bradley said he was particularly worried that Wednesday’s public hearing could generate feedback there isn’t time to effectively deal with in order to meet the 30-day warning period for a special election.
“I really hate to see this as a botched process that undermines us from the start,” he said.
Like DeGroot, Bradley noted the changes that committee has tentatively agreed to are all “good ideas,” but aren’t, in his view, necessary.
“Is the benefit of these articles worth the risk?” he asked.
“I have a lot of trepidation about going forward with these,” Winters agreed.
The committee is deeply divided on three possible changes, including one – where to set the bar for closing schools after the first two years of the new district’s operation – that must be separately approved by voters in each town instead of collectively approved by voters in the five-town district.
The committee opted not to discuss that article Thursday night and likely won’t until after Wednesday’s public hearing.
The committee was similarly split on two other proposals that were discussed at the Thursday meeting. One would direct the yet-to-be-elected board to adopt a policy for offering elementary school choice to students in the five-town district. The other would create three “non-voting” seats on the school board – one for an elementary school teacher, another for a high school teacher, and the third for a staff member at any of the districts six schools.
Neither proposal was rejected, but both will require additional discussion during a Monday night meeting that two members – DeGroot and Bradley – won’t be able to attend. Both men expressed concern about the proposals and the prospect of presenting them to voters based on a rushed discussion that didn’t produce consensus.
Though committee members were intrigued by the possibility of adopting future school budgets through a “representative town meeting,” as is the case in Brattleboro, Superintendent Bill Kimball said that isn’t a decision that can statutorily be made by amending articles of agreement. It must, he said, be proposed by the board that hasn’t yet been elected.
The four changes the committee has been able to agree on are relatively minor.
One calls for the expanding the school board from 10 to 11 members in 2020, by adding a new at large seat. The default articles the state has proposed calls for a 10-member board with two representatives from each community that are collectively elected by voters in all five towns. The extra seat could be filled by a resident of any of the five towns and, like the other 10, would be elected at large.
The committee has also tentatively embraced an article that would open the door for the creation of school-based councils to serve in an advisory capacity and provide feedback.
The other two articles haven’t yet been vetted by the committee’s lawyer and at least one of them wouldn’t be needed if no vote is held.
That article would essentially state that school districts that have chosen to challenge the forced merger aren’t waiving their right to overturn that decision by voting on the proposed amendments.
The other article simply states that if there is a legal issue that nullifies one of the other articles the balance of the agreement would remain in full force.
The presumption is those articles could be warned and voted separately in a district-wide election. Those that pass would be added to the default articles proposed by the state, while those that don’t wouldn’t.
The public hearing is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday in the U-32 auditorium, and the committee has agreed to meet Friday morning to decide how to proceed.