Sandgate, Winhall and Stratton continue merger talks
Andrew McKeever Photo — Members of a merger study group on three small area towns decide to continue exploring a possible merger, with or without the Arlington school district’s involvement Tuesday night at Manchester Elementary Middle School.
GNAT News Project
MANCHESTER — Despite uncertainty about whether the Arlington School District will wind up joining them in a school district consolidation, three smaller school districts, none which operate their own schools, have decided to forge ahead with planning for a possible merger.
Representatives from Sandgate, Winhall and Stratton have been meeting to decide on the terms of their merger under a provision in Act 49, successor legislation to Act 46, the landmark statute passed in 2015, which encourages existing school districts to consolidate into a smaller number of districts. Act 49 created other pathways for districts which were geographically isolated or unable to find “dance partners” up to now, and one of those routes is the “3×1” side-by-side merger.
Members of the committee formed this past summer to explore an expedited merger process and met last month to study the financial implications. They agreed at that meeting to form a formal study group. The committee members of the three towns met again on Tuesday, Sept. 5 at the Manchester Elementary Middle School to assess where they stood and hear from their consultant, Daniel French, a former superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, on some of the main issues they faced. Those included policies on paying independent school tuitions, transportation and board representation.
But overhanging that discussion was whether it even made sense to continue to meet and work up a set of articles of agreement for their proposed merger, which would need to be presented to voters for their approval by November 30, 2017, if the Arlington School District is unwilling to join in with them. French said he had received an email from William Bazyk, the superintendent of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, earlier in the day, which stated that he, Bazyk, was “not optimistic” about the likelihood of Arlington joining the merger and that there was a real possibility they would not participate. If Arlington opts out of the proposed merger, the three “non-operating” towns would not be eligible to receive property tax incentives for consolidating into one district. If Arlington did join, they would be. Those incentives come mainly in the form of a four year sliding scale of property tax reductions, beginning with 8 cents off the town’s individual tax rates in the first year and declining by two cents over the following three years.
Merging the three non-operating districts into one could also result in tax increases in Stratton and Sandgate, while Winhall might see a 7 cent tax reduction, before the tax incentives are factored in, according to a preliminary report prepared by French which the committee discussed Tuesday night.
It wasn’t an overly attractive financial merger, although the incentives help, French said.
But on the plus side, merging together now would solidify their ability to preserve school choice for the three towns, a key factor for each of them, by controlling their own articles of agreement, he added.
“You’re talking about … putting it before your voters that the three of you would merge, and what you’d be telling your voters is that it’s not clear we’d be eligible for the incentives or not,” French told the committee members.
Dean Gianotti, a Winhall representative and the chairman of the study group, said he felt it was still worthwhile to go forward with exploring the merger.
“The real focus for me has always been on the intangible benefits of the merger,” he said. “It’s nice to get tax incentives and I feel it would be irresponsible not to pursue them, but really it’s about forming a larger district to help preserve choice, and about, especially for Winhall, having a larger student population to help absorb the fluctuations we see where families move in and out. There are certainly benefits to merging that are not financial.”
Having a merged district formed would give them a stronger voice in determining their future, even if in the end Arlington was not part of the configuration, he added.
The committee then turned to discussing draft articles of agreement French had prepared. Each of the three towns would be “necessary” towns under the preliminary document, meaning that all would have to vote in favor of it in order for it to pass. This would create one unified school district, which tentatively would be administered by one four member school board (one representative each from Sandgate and Stratton, with two from Winhall). The committee also discussed approaches to paying for independent school tuitions, especially with regard to Burr and Burton Academy, and ensuring “equitable” transportation, a factor in often remote parts of Sandgate and Stratton.
At the end of the meeting, the representatives had also settled on a name for their new proposed district — the Mountain Valley District.
If the committee opts to go forward with the merger, a vote to create it would be by Australian ballot, and if that vote is successful, the district would come into being by July 1, 2019, following a transitional year from the the current existing school boards into the one unified district board.
The committee agreed to meet one more time later this month before authorizing the proposed articles to be sent to the Agency of Education for vetting and approval, prior to a possible subsequent vote in November.