BERLIN — Despite stumbling at the start, the recently elected board of a soon-to-be-launched school district continued to work at a brisk pace Wednesday night.
On a night when administrators easily outnumbered board members and it took more than 30 minutes to manage a quorum, the board of the Washington Central Unified Union School District continued its march to meet the July 1 deadline for a state-ordered merger.
Meeting for the third time in its two-week existence, six of the board’s 10 members approved the first reading of 28 required polices the board must adopt before month’s end and set a public hearing on its $34 million budget request and a series of suggested amendments to the articles of agreement for the new pre-K-12 district. With the proposed budget and amendments set to be collectively decided by voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester during a special election on June 25, board members tentatively agreed to schedule the required public hearing for 6:30 p.m. on June 18 at U-32 Middle and High School.
The hearing will be part of a broader and still evolving outreach effort designed to inform voters about the proposed budget for the five-town, six-school district anchored by U-32, as well as changes some would like to see made in state-imposed articles of agreement.
Although support for rushing a vote on the proposed amendments has waned in recent weeks amid a growing sense that additional adjustments should be presented to voters in one comprehensive package, board members agreed Wednesday night passing a budget is imperative.
Chairman Scott Thompson said that is anything but a slam dunk in communities where weary voters have already separately approved school spending proposals and residents have long been divided about the prospect of merger.
Thompson said the public hearing was important, but likely wouldn’t be particularly well attended. He urged board members to “fan out” and engage voters in their towns in hopes of boosting turnout for the latest in a string of special elections.
Superintendent Bill Kimball said the annual report for the new district — the Washington Central Unified Union School District — had just been completed and postcards advising residents of its availability would be mailed by Friday.
Though board members are hoping the budget, which is essentially a compilation of already approved school spending proposals, will pass on June 25, Kimball said they need to be ready to swiftly react if it doesn’t. He asked them to be ready to meet on June 26 in the event the budget is defeated.
Thanks to the late arrival of School Director George Gross, the board was able to advance 28 required policies. All but one of those policies have already been adopted by the Washington Central Supervisory Union’s six soon-to-be-replaced school boards and, with one exception, those policies are identical.
The new policy would establish guidelines protecting student freedom of expression in school-sponsored media. Thompson urged board members to give that policy a thorough review before next week’s scheduled second reading and adoption.
The existing policy that had to be changed to reflect consistent language across all six schools was the weapons policy. Some districts used differing definitions for “dangerous weapons” based on blade length when it came to knives. All knives would be considered “dangerous weapons” under the proposed policy.
In other business, the board accepted a couple of bids, tweaked meal prices for the coming school year, and authorized their superintendent — Kimball is leaving on June 30 and his interim replacement Debra Taylor is set to start July 15 — to accept all state and federal grants.
Kimball said the latter decision — an annual formality — couldn’t be deferred without potentially disrupting grant-funded summer programming.
Board members approved what they were told was a money-saving insurance bid submitted by Denis, Ricker & Brown Insurance. The combined cost of property and liability and related insurance and workers compensation insurance will be $200,999 for the coming fiscal year. That, board members were told, is nearly $11,500 better than previously anticipated.
The board also agreed to invest nearly $100,000 in aging telephone systems at four of the district’s six schools, as well as at the central office located on the U-32 campus in East Montpelier.
The bulk of the expense reflected in the lone bid submitted by TwinState Technologies involves replacing the phone systems at U-32 and the central office. That portion of the work will cost nearly $62,000. Replacing the phone system at Berlin Elementary School, where the board held its Wednesday night meeting will cost nearly $14,000. Similar work will cost just over $12,100 at both Calais Elementary School and Doty Memorial School in Worcester.
The phone system at East Montpelier Elementary School was replaced three years ago and the one at Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex was replaced in the past year.
Kimball said money to cover the cost of the telephone upgrades is included in a technology plan created to cover such “big-ticket” expenses six years ago.
“The money is there within the budgets,” he said. “We don’t need to borrow.”
The board approved an administrative recommendation that increase meal prices by 25 cents during the coming school year. The price of student lunches at all six schools will be $4 and student breakfasts will cost $3.
Members deferred a discussion of their participation in the Vermont School Boards Association until next week and tabled action on appointing student representatives to the board.
While some board members — Berlin’s Vera Frazier and East Montpelier’s Flor Diaz-Smith among them — are eager to schedule a board retreat, Dorothy Naylor, who, like Thompson, represents Calais on the board, said she’d prefer to wait until after a judge rules on the last remaining counts of a lawsuit challenging the merger. Some key claims in that lawsuit have already been dismissed and appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court and Naylor said the board shouldn’t get ahead of itself.
“I am not eager to give up half a day to spend a lot of time setting goals ... before we’ve heard from the courts,” Naylor said.
However, Frazier said a properly framed retreat could prove useful even if a court ruling derailed the merger. Diaz-Smith said the board wasn’t elected to oppose the law — Act 46 — that led to its creation.
“I feel really, really strongly that the job of this board is not, at this point, to stand on opposing Act 46 but on running our schools,” she said. “Every time we meet should be about how to move forward.”
With the board’s schedule full this month, a looming administrative transition that will see Kimball step away and Taylor step in next month, Thompson suggested the board plan on taking July off.
Kimball agreed, suggesting planning a retreat in early August would make sense.