GNAT-TV News Project
A Pawlet resident weighs in on the proposed merger terms of the Pawlet and Rupert School districts during a community forum held last August.
PAWLET — Having had its merger proposal rejected which would have created a single school district from the current pair representing Pawlet and Rupert, the merger study committee regrouped Thursday, Oct. 5, and recrafted the proposal.
The revised version, passed by a 4-3 margin, will jettison the long held option of designating a pair of New York schools for the two towns 7-12 graders, in favor of a wider-ranging school choice option.
Currently, students from Pawlet and Rupert can attend school in Salem and Granville, N.Y., where the tuition rates are substantially lower than in neighboring Vermont schools. That has helped keep tax rates in the two towns lower than they would have been, and the potential impact on tax rates was a theme mentioned frequently during two public hearings held by the merger study committee as they developed a proposal for submission to the Vermont Board of Education and the Agency of Education. A proposal was adopted on Aug. 30 by a 5-2 margin
to continue to designate two schools in New York State – the Granville junior-senior high school and the Washington Academy in Salem – for the two town’s 7th thru 12th grade students. The proposed articles of agreement discussed by the merger study committee would have also allowed Rupert and Pawlet residents to send their children to other secondary schools, but they will have to pay the differential between the tuition the town currently pays to the New York Schools – which at the moment is $8,750 in Pawlet and $5,495 in Rupert and the tuition other schools would charge.
However, the state board shot down the proposal during its meeting last week, concerned that the arrangement was unfair to students whose families could not afford the additional out-of-pocket expense to pay for tuition to Vermont schools, such as the Poultney High School, Long Trail School in Dorset or Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester. Designation raised questions of fairness and equity, the board stated.
In response, the merger study committee has revised its proposal to allow for school choice, with each student entitled to access the state’s average union district tuition, which is currently $15,480. This new plan will be presented to the state board of education at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 18.
If the state board approves this new proposal, a possible vote by residents of the two communities could be held during the first half of November.
About 50 percent of students in Pawlet, and about 35 percent of students in Rupert currently attend schools other than the ones in Granville and Salem, N.Y., according to the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, of which Pawlet and Rupert are members.
The issue of designation versus school choice has divided residents in the two towns since the question emerged at the forefront of discussions around forming a merged district of current three districts which is being driven by Act 46, the state’s education consolidation statute first passed in 2015. The Mettawee School District, as it would be known, would qualify as a so-called “side by side” merger to the Taconic and Green Regional School district, and would remain part of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union. This would also mean it would be eligible for tax incentives offered under Act 46, and would mean the two towns would retain a say in the merger process before a Nov. 30 deadline when in theory, the state board and agency of education could direct existing districts to merge without necessarily taking in account what the local entities might prefer.
An earlier attempt by the school districts of Pawlet and Rupert, the only two school districts in the state to have formal designation rules up to now with New York schools, to craft a merger with the neighboring town of Wells last year foundered over the issue of school choice, which voters in Wells were keen to retain.