Voters Talk Act 46 Plans In Barnard

Front Page / Feb. 16, 2017 9:58am EST

Merger Would Create Seven Town District
By Chloe Powell

Should seven Windsor County towns, including Barnard and Pomfret, merge to form one, unified, Act 46-compliant district?

Although the Act 46 Study Committee of the Windsor Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) has thrown its support behind the plan, a number of Barnard residents aren’t so sure.

During a community discussion January 30 at the Barnard Town Hall, many expressed reservations about the consolidation plan, which voters will see on their Town Meeting Day ballots. The Barnard meeting was organized by the Act 46 Forum Committee, a group of parents who are independent of the Act 46 Study Committee that drafted the merger proposal.

The study committee’s proposal will be put before voters of the seven towns—Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Plymouth, Pomfret, Reading, and Woodstock—on Town Meeting Day.

The goal of the January 30 forum in Barnard was to foster dialogue on the implications of a “yes” or “no” vote.

Tasked with coming up with a plan by WCSU, the Act 46 Study Committee drafted a proposal that calls for merging all seven boards into one 18-member board, with six members from Woodstock, with two members from each of the remaining six towns.

The plan would also restructure campuses to save costs. The plan calls for elementary schools in Barnard and Reading to become PreK- 4 schools, with Barnard’s grades 5-6 students going to Prosper Valley School in Pomfret. There would be school choice within the district, as well as shared investments in curriculum.

The study committee’s 95-page report can be found at wcsu.net. Information about consolidation efforts statewide can be found at voteonAct46.org.

Towns that don’t comply with Act 46’s timeline for consolidation risk losing Vermont’s small schools grants, which at $85,000 for Barnard, makes up 8% of the school’s budget.

Many, particularly in Barnard and Reading, fear that losing upper grades is just a step towards the eventual closing of the schools, and want to look into alternative options.

It was noted at the forum that alternative structures to the one currently proposed are allowed with state approval, but with several provisos. Schools must prove geographic isolation, (therefore long bus rides), measurable success as an exceptional school (via test scores), or a high percentage of low-income students.

Measuring equity has proven difficult. Each school has a unique student population. As well as other challenges and strengths that can’t be measured. Barnard, for example, has a strong music program, and each spring a school-wide musical features the graduating class in lead roles.

The students take numerous field trips to the HOP and Montshire Museum, which are funded outside of the school budget.

It was evident at the January 30 meeting that Barnard’s small school culture is appreciated by many parents, who credited teachers and staff for creating a warm environment that nurtures students and has very little bullying. Reading, which also faces staff and classroom cuts, is notable for a strong Farm to School culture in its school.

There are many uncertainties surrounding the merger decision, including the unknown future of Act 46 legislation. Currently, bills are being proposed that would make the alternative structure more flexible, and some that propose extending Act 46 deadlines.

At the Barnard forum, some promoted delaying any decisions until more is known about the future of these bills, and how other towns vote.

Second Chance’

Pamela Fraser, an organizer of the January 30 meeting, proposed that on Town Meeting Day, Barnard residents “vote our conscience, and know that we have a second chance.” if the proposal is defeated on Town Meeting Day.

That second chance, she said, could come in the form of a subsequent vote in June. Voting then would give more time to come up with an alternative proposal with other towns, Fraser said. If that path turns out to be unviable, voters can return to the study committee’s proposal.

Delaying the decision by voting “no,” Fraser argued, is still a “safe” vote, and does not change the town’s ability to qualify for the small school’s grant.

Despite differing opinions about how to vote, all at the forum could agree on the value of Barnard’s small school, and that any decision should be based on what plan can provide the best outcomes for students.

February 28 Meeting

Barnard residents will have another opportunity to learn about the proposed merger, and to ask questions at a meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28, 7 p.m., at the Town Hall. This session will be hosted by members of the study committee that drafted the plan.

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