Stratton, Sandgate, Winhall agree to consider merger
By Andrew McKeever
MANCHESTER — The schools districts of Sandgate, Winhall and Stratton have agreed to explore an Act 46 merger, with Arlington as a possible partner in a so-called “3×1” configuration, allowed under Act 49, successor legislation to the original school consolidation statute passed in 2015.
Under Act 49, new allowable merger structures, such as the 3 by 1 side-by-side format, and more flexibility for enabling unlike districts to find merger partners, were created to help facilitate the overall goals of compelling school district mergers by the end of 2018.
At a meeting held Wednesday, Aug. 16 at the Manchester Elementary Middle School, representatives from Winhall, Stratton, and Sandgate, plus William Bazyk, the school superintendent of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union which includes Arlington and Sandgate, met with Daniel French, formerly the superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, who is serving as a consultant to several school districts going through the Act 46 merger process. French assisted the school districts involved in the Taconic and Green Regional School District that was successfully concluded earlier this year.
At the Aug. 16 meeting, the representatives from Winhall, Stratton and Sandgate voted to authorize French to proceed with drawing up formal agreement language for those three districts. They plan to meet again on Sept. 5 to review the language, which, if approved, would be finalized in time for the State Board of Education to review during its October meeting. If approved by the state education board, the articles of agreement would then be put to a vote by the residents of the three towns involved, at some point before the end of November, 2017, in order to qualify for tax incentives that accrue to school districts which are able to merge under Act 46.
The main issue the three towns would have to resolve is the current discrepancy in their tax rates. Currently, Sandgates education tax rate is slightly under $1.70 per $100 of assessed property value; Stratton’s is slightly above $1.58 and Winhall’s is slightly above $1.84. If the three towns successfully merged, the combined merged rate would be $1.7758. Sandgates’s rate would go up by 8 cents, and Stratton’s would rise by 19 cents, but Winhall’s would decline by 7 cents. That’s largely a function of Winhall being the largest town of the three and having more pupils — it has roughly 139 “equalized” pupils compared to about 80 “equalized “ pupils in the other two towns combined. An “equalized” pupil is a term used to weigh the educational impacts caused by students who are affected by adverse factors such as poverty or special needs, and is not an exact number of students actually enrolled in a school. Winhall also spends far more than the other two communities on education costs — more than twice as much as the other two towns combined.
Working through the tax rate changes, along with determining the composition and proportional representation on the new school board than would administer the new district, may be the main issues to resolve, French said after the meeting.
But since all three share common characteristics such as school choice, in addition to being “non-operating” – towns which don’t run their own schools but tuition students out to other schools – he felt there would be solid ground for fashioning a set of agreement articles they could sign on to.
“I’m optimistic that that will probably lead them to a way forward, “ he said.
At present, the three smaller non-operating towns would be so-called “necessary” towns in the merger proposal, meaning that voters in each of those towns would have to approve it in order for the merger to go forward. Arlington is currently listed as an “advisable” community, meaning that a vote there against merging would not stop the other three from being able to merge.
Arlington’s school board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, Aug. 23, and will have a chance to discuss and absorb the decision of the other three towns, and decide how it wishes to proceed.
“A lot has occurred in a short period of time regarding Act 49 and the 3 x 1,” said Bazyk, the BVSU’s superintendent. “The Arlington School Board will be discussing the outcomes of tonight’s meeting next Wednesday and then decide their next steps.”
All four communities are facing the need to find merger partners in advance of a 2019 deadline imposed under Act 46. School districts which haven’t found merger partners by then can be placed by the state’s Agency of Education into combinations with other districts but those might not be ones that offer them the best possible options educationally or from a financial standpoint they might have obtained by matching up with other districts at an earlier phase of the merger process.
The timeline of moving this merger forward, with or without Arlington’s eventual participation, is aggressive and accelerated, but since the three smaller towns several similarities, drawing up the articles of agreement between them won’t be overly complicated, French said.
“Typically this would take a number of months to do, but because they are all non-operating, they don’t have the same amount of financial analysis to be fleshed out,” he said. “The financial piece is relatively simple.”
Andrew McKeever Photo
Representatives from four communities met with Dan French, at right, to discuss merger language and a timeline for moving forward at the Manchester Elementary Middle School on Aug. 16