BARRE — The uncertain future of the Barre Supervisory Union was underscored on Tuesday, when one of its three school boards filled two vacancies at the same time that a slate of candidates for a new board that will be elected next month was released.
The new nine-member board will only be seated if voters in Barre and Barre Town separately approve the three-district merger that will be on the ballots in both communities on Nov. 6. That state-sanctioned merger would create one new union district that would include currently autonomous pre-K-8 districts in Barre and Barre Town, as well as the shared, but separately run, Spaulding High School district.
The new pre-K to grade 12 district would have a single budget, be run by one new board and operate under recently negotiated articles of agreement that prevent significant structural changes without obtaining voter approval.
Affirmative votes in Barre, where a similar merger was easily approved two years ago, and Barre Town, where it was twice rejected, would provide a predictable end result in what all agree is an otherwise unpredictable process.
The state Board of Education is facing a Nov. 30 deadline for dealing with districts that haven’t voluntarily merged under Act 46, and if the latest Barre merger fails again, the three local districts will instantly be added to that list.
What would happen then is anybody’s guess.
Potentially Barre’s supervisory union could be left alone, though many argue that’s a risky bet that could come at a steep cost. Another failed vote would forfeit favorable tax incentives still available to districts that voluntarily merge, as well as articles of agreement that were specifically tailored to address concerns raised by merger critics in Barre Town.
If the merger is again defeated, many believe one will be compelled, if only because the local supervisory union doesn’t meet any of the legislative criteria the state board could use to justify maintaining the status quo:
— Barre and Barre Town aren’t “geographically isolated.” Before 1895, they were one community and together they would still fit comfortably within the footprint of neighboring Berlin. The fact that school buses travel through the city every day transporting students from one side of the town to the other undercuts a potential argument against a forced merger.
— The neighboring school districts don’t have different operating structures, although they did before the voter-approved merger that gave Barre Town half ownership of Spaulding and three seats on the seven-member board that has been running the Barre-based high school for nearly 25 years. Before that, Barre Town paid to tuition its high school students to Spaulding and – size aside – that’s an arrangement that would have been respected under Act 46.
— While differing debt could be considered by the state board, it isn’t an issue in the Barre Supervisory Union. The Spaulding debt is already shared and the two elementary school districts have comparable debt.
A shared high school fed by two comparably sized elementary schools and run by a shared administrative team are why several have described Barre as “the poster child for school district consolidation.”
If a merger is rejected and one is forced instead, it isn’t clear what that would look like in an area of the state where the fate of other districts remains unresolved.
“The possibilities are pretty endless and honestly a little overwhelming,” Superintendent John Pandolfo told city school commissioners on Tuesday.
Pandolfo delivered a similar message to members of the Barre Town and Spaulding boards during separate meetings last week.
The state board could compel the same three-district merger that is on the ballot and impose articles of agreement that don’t contain the safeguards negotiated locally, or it could consider a broader merger.
The Twinfield Union School District could be added as a member of a new merged district, or as a partner in a reconfigured supervisory union. There are other more exotic and probably less likely scenarios, and while a voter-approved merger would prevent the state board from creating a larger district, it has the power to redraw supervisory union boundaries independent of Act 46.
It was against that backdrop that Barre school commissioners sought to fill a recent vacancy on a board that might have a short shelf life and to fill the clerk’s position that could take on added significance if a merger is forced.
Both vacancies are tied to former board member Tyler Smith’s recent move to Berlin, and prompted Chairwoman Sonya Spaulding to acknowledge the level of uncertainty that now exists.
“There are a lot of ‘what-ifs,’” she said.
The board interviewed Andrew McMichael and Lane Fury and appointed McMichael – a former school commissioner who missed the filing deadline earlier this year – to serve until March.
McMichael said he would run again in March, understanding that if a merger is approved or imposed, the city’s school board – like the Barre Town and Spaulding boards – would disband shortly after July 1, 2019.
Meanwhile, School Commissioner Sarah Pregent agreed to serve as clerk, understanding that if a merger is imposed, that will require her and Spaulding to serve as Barre’s two representatives to a transitional board.
That board wouldn’t be needed if the merger is approved by voters on Nov. 6.
Though there is still room for a write-in candidate in Barre, eight of the nine seats on the proposed school board have been spoken for.
Guy Isabelle, who represents Barre Town on the Spaulding board, is running unopposed for a three-year seat that will be collectively elected by city and town voters.
Four other members of the Spaulding board – including Chairman Paul Malone – are also running.
Malone and Spaulding board member David LaCroix are running for two of the four seats that will be directly elected by town voters. Barre Town School Director Victoria Pompei is running for a third seat and town resident Gina Akley, chairwoman of the merger study committee, is running for the final slot.
Spaulding board members Ed Rousse and Anthony Folland are both running for two of the city’s for seats. School Commissioner Giuliano Cecchinelli II is running also running unopposed. There was no candidate for a fourth seat – a one-year term.