BARRE — History was made in the near-empty cafeteria at Spaulding High School on Thursday night as the first forced merger under Act 46 lurched toward its July 1 launch.
The “Barre Unified Union School District” is now official, though Tom Koch, who was elected moderator as the new district’s first piece of business, suggested its tongue-twisting name should be changed.
Koch swore in a first-of-its-kind “transitional board” that will cease to exist on April 9 when a new board is expected to be elected.
The size of that board and how its seats should be filled will be decided by voters in Barre and Barre Town at a special election on Feb. 19. The six-member transitional board also approved the warning for that special election Thursday.
Apart from board members and Town Clerk Donna Kelty, the only voter who attended the organizational meeting of the two-town, three-school district was Barre Town resident Dottye Ricks.
Ricks has long lobbied against a merger that Barre Town voters rejected three times in the last two years. Though they finally approved it, 952-534, during a Tuesday re-vote that was triggered by a petition Ricks submitted, the favorable result fell short of the statutory requirement for reversing the earlier vote.
Based on the challenged results, at least 1,404 town voters — two-thirds of the 2,106 who voted “no” in November — needed to vote “yes,” which did not happen, setting the stage for one of several forced mergers recently ordered by the state Board of Education under Act 46.
Though they have filed one of two lawsuits challenging Act 46, the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts have scheduled an organizational meeting for their merged district on Monday.
School districts in eight other supervisory unions where mergers were ordered have received at least a brief reprieve thanks to an agreement between lawyers in the lawsuit that was filed on their behalf. Organizational meetings in those districts have been postponed until next month — after a hearing on a motion requesting an injunction blocking the mergers until the case is resolved.
None of that affects the merger ordered in a supervisory union that includes currently autonomous elementary school districts in Barre and Barre Town and jointly owned Spaulding High School.
Barre voters have twice approved the merger that was recently imposed. The Spaulding High School board, which is composed of city and town residents, has publicly supported it, and while school directors in Barre Town were divided, they opted not to join the lawsuit.
All three of those boards continue to exist and each has two delegates on the new board, which got a peak at a $33 million draft budget that reflects a 7-cent tax increase in both communities. The budget would cover the combined cost of operating centralized elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town and Spaulding.
The earliest that budget will be voted on is May 14, and Superintendent John Pandolfo said that will require fast action by a board that isn’t expected to be elected until April 9 and must warn the budget vote at least 30 days in advance.
Had Tuesday’s re-vote been successful, the calendar would look very different. The nine-member board elected last November would have been sworn in Thursday, there would be no need to amend articles of agreement at a special election in February and a vote on a combined budget for the merged district could have been scheduled on Town Meeting Day.
Tax incentives available to districts that voluntarily merged would have erased the 7-cent rate hike Pandolfo is now projecting and allowed for a 1-cent reduction in both communities.
In addition to Koch being elected moderator, Kelty was elected clerk and City Clerk Carol Dawes was elected to serve as treasurer. All three currently perform those roles for the Spaulding district.
Though this year’s budget vote will be delayed, those in attendance agreed future budgets will be adopted by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day, but specified the votes from both communities will not be commingled before they are counted.
Ricks voted against motions allowing the new district to borrow in anticipation of state revenue allowing it to provide residents with a mailed notice that copies of the annual report and the proposed budget were available instead of incurring the cost of distributing them.
How much to pay members of the yet-to-be-elected board, and how that decision should be made, was the most time-consuming question.
Barre pays its school board members $1,500 a year and members of the Barre Town board receive a $2,000 stipend. Both are annually approved by Australian ballot. Members of the Spaulding board are paid $1,500, while the chairman receives $2,000. Those salaries are set at an open meeting much like the one held on Thursday.
Board members settled on stipends of $2,500 for board members and $4,000 for the chairman.
The organizational meeting was preceded by a public hearing on proposed amendments to articles of agreement that would otherwise be imposed by the state and followed by the first meeting of the transitional board.
Following the hearing, a two-member committee agreed to propose two substantive changes to the articles.
One of the changes would provide for a nine-member board with four members directly elected by voters in each community and a ninth member elected at large. That configuration was part of both earlier merger proposals and is considered more attractive than alternatives that would be imposed.
Under the default articles of agreement, the new district would be run by a four-member board with two representatives from each community who are elected by the combined vote of both.
Changing that will require district-wide approval of the amendment.
A second change essentially mirrors previously proposed language and would require voters in the two-town district to approve restructuring the elementary schools or closing any school building. The state’s language would prevent those types of changes for two years, but then leave it up to the board.
Pandolfo said that article must be separately approved by voters in Barre and Barre Town.
The transitional board later approved the warning for the Feb. 19 special election after rejecting Ricks’ suggestion they request an extension from the state Board of Education that would allow that vote to occur on Town Meeting Day.
Ricks proposed the brief extension as part of a broader plan to delay electing a new school board until mid-May and voting on a school budget until mid-June.
Pandolfo said that would be problematic and noted the extension proposed by Ricks was at odds with deadlines written into Act 46.
“It wouldn’t be the state board that would have the authority to say: ‘You don’t have to follow the law,” he said. “That would take a level of court action.”
Though Ricks urged the board to consider that option, it received no support.
“I have zero interest in that. Absolutely zero,” said Sonya Spaulding, who serves as chairwoman of the Barre City School Board and is one of its two delegates to the transitional board.
Spaulding School Director Tim Boltin agreed.
“There’s been plenty of time wasted on this,” he said. “No.”