BARRE TOWN — The letter school directors agreed to write barely 24 hours after voters rejected another proposed school district merger, 2,106-1,262, on Tuesday is expected to be short and sweet.
It will have to be.
School directors agreed they don’t have time to craft a voluminous report defending the current governance structure in the two-town, three-school Barre Supervisory Union. Even if they did, Chairwoman Alice Farrell said members of the state board probably don’t have time to read it.
“Whatever it is we do present to them, it has to be down and dirty because that’s the way they’re functioning,” Farrell said. “They’re not going to take a whole lot of time to read an epistle, it’s going to have to be … bullet points.”
The state board is nearing its Act 46-imposed deadline for finalizing a plan to deal with a list of unmerged districts that got a little longer in the wake of Tuesday’s voting. School Director Chris Hull acknowledged Barre Town’s options for influencing those deliberations are limited.
“There’s not really much we can do at this point other than to possibly pen some sort of statement or letter to the state board kind of supporting what our voters did at the polls,” Hull said, noting the statutory deadline for submitting a meatier proposal lapsed nearly a year ago.
With the state board scheduled to discuss the failed merger of the Barre, Barre Town and Spaulding High School districts when it meets next week, School Director Victoria Pompei said submitting something in advance of Thursday’s daylong session was imperative.
Pompei suggested the letter focus on the local board’s belief that the current system meets the goals of Act 46, not whether it complies with the plain language of the three-year-old law. She argued the existing board delivers equity, educational excellence, efficiency, transparency and affordability, and shouldn’t be changed.
Though they are separately run, Pompei said all three Barre schools are already working together, have enrollment that is high by Vermont standards and boast per-pupil costs that are among the lowest in the state.
Pompei said Barre Town built its centralized middle and elementary school in 1966, and Barre shuttered its neighborhood schools in favor of one big new one in 1995.
“We were ahead of the curve of Act 46,” she said.
Hull expressed a similar sentiment.
“Our supervisory union is doing a lot to comply … with Act 46,” he said. “I feel like we’re doing what they want us to do and we’re proficient.”
School Director Rebecca Kerin-Hutchins said she believes size might also matter. In terms of enrollment, the Barre, Barre Town and Spaulding districts are considerably larger than most of the other districts the state board has already provisionally agreed to merge.
“I think that’s another argument we can make,” said Kerin-Hutchins, who campaigned against the merger and spent all day Tuesday at the polls encouraging voters to reject it.
Farrell said the latest lopsided “no” vote was also worth mentioning in the letter.
School Director Jay Paterson agreed.
“We should emphasize the idea that we have done this three times, that people were informed … (and) they made a very clear indication … that they would like to remain as is,” he said.
Resident and longtime merger critic Dottye Ricks said she feared the three failed votes would not be enough to dissuade the state board from imposing the merger, and she encouraged members to play up the argument the districts already meet the expressed goals of the law.
Many other school districts have made that same argument — most in thick reports complete with charts and graphs to underscore the point. In most cases it hasn’t worked, and school directors acknowledged they were far from certain a letter that was the product of a 30-minute conversation would be more persuasive than reports that took months to draft and were submitted on time.
That uncertainty was evident throughout Wednesday night’s meeting, as board members said the potential for a forced merger made discussions of everything from board goals to next year’s budget premature.
“Should they still decide to force us (to merge), which I think is wrong on a lot of levels, what’s ‘Plan B?’” Hull asked.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Pompei replied.