‘Town Academy’ discussed; concerns raised
GNAT-TV News Project
MANCHESTER — Advocates of exploring a “town academy” model as an additional option to the Act 46-based merger study currently underway and of which Manchester is a part urged the roughly 30 area residents who turned out for the presentation Tuesday, Nov. 1 at the Manchester Community Library to keep an open mind and see how next week’s election results might shift the political landscape.
The town academy idea as envisioned by a citizen’s committee would convert Manchester Elementary Middle School — in whole or part — into an independent school affiliated with Burr and Burton Academy. Independent schools have more flexibility around educational curriculum and have historically been better able at controlling the growth of their costs, Brian Vogel, one of the town academy committee members and a former chairman of the Manchester School District, told the audience.
Vogel said he had approached Burr and Burton school officials about the possibility of them exploring the idea of forming an independent town academy that would involve BBA adding on some or all of the elementary or middle school grades if townspeople expressed a clear sentiment in favor of exploring that.
“BBA has the knowledge, the experience; they would be able to look at the issues to thoroughly vet the idea,” he said. “BBA said if we get a referendum on the ballot and the town expressed a positive opinion of it, they would look at it.”
However in the time between those conversations earlier this year and the present, the State Board of Education released some proposed rule changes that would require independent schools like BBA to comply with all state and federal laws and rules applicable to Vermont’s public schools as a condition for payment of tuition from local school districts. That prospect has caused consternation within independent school ranks and at Burr and Burton, where the proposed rule changes have been characterized as potentially devastating.
The rule changes, if implemented, could affect areas like special education services, and teacher and administrative certifications.
That caused the ground to shift, Vogel said.
When Vogel and his committee colleagues announced their hope in a press release for generating interest in the town academy concept late in October, and the informational forum held Nov. 1, Burr and Burton responded with a statement that said the school did not envision being able to support a change of this magnitude at this time.
“In the few months between when I went to BBA and the press release came out, the State Board of Education has come down with new proposed rules that are draconian,” Vogel said.
But the initiative is still worth exploring and proceeding with, and he and his committee members hope to gather enough signatures to place an item on the school district’s warning for next March Town Meeting if the tide of opinion seems favorable between now and next January.
The town academy model is also overlapping with the Northshire Merger Study Committee’s work on preparing a proposal for a consolidated school district that would include Manchester and eight other neighboring towns under Act 46, a statute enacted in 2015 and amended earlier this year, which encourages neighboring and similar districts to merge together and share services. The merger study committee also held an information forum, on Thursday, Nov. 3, where they reviewed their likely proposal they will need to make to the State Board of Education. If the state board approves their plan, it comes back to area voters for final approval. The committee hopes to get their proposal voted on during March town meeting. If approved, the new district could be in place by next July, 2017, and the districts would receive some property tax benefits for a few years as a result.
The merger study committee is planning to meet Monday, Nov. 7, to vote on the proposal they will submit to the state board of education.
Meanwhile, the town academy idea drew a mixed response from the residents attending the meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 1.
If having more control over a local school was a priority, restructuring an existing public school like MEMS into an independent school might not be the logical way to go, said Bill Drunsic, a Manchester resident.
“The only control a town has is at a (school) board meeting,” he said. “I don’t understand the complaint about losing control under Act 46.”
“My issue with Act 46 is that you’re working with a terrible law,” Vogel replied, adding that he respected the time and effort put in by the Northshire merger study committee led by its chairman, Jon Wilson. “I would love to see the town have more choice than a yes or no vote on one option.”
Neal L. McIntyre, the principal of the Flood Brook School in Londonderry, which would be one of the three middle schools where students in towns like Danby, Mt. Tabor and Sunderland would be funnelled for 7th and 8th grades should the new proposed school district under consideration by the merger study committee would go, also raised concerns. He questioned how firm the planning and thinking had been around a Manchester town academy, in addition to the timing of the proposal. If it succeeded in throwing the Act 46 merger discussions off-course by pulling Manchester out of the proposed district, that could leave some neighboring towns without “dance partners,” a term often employed to characterize like school districts lining up to merge together, he said.
“It would send us all the way back to square one with no dance partners, very close to the end of the dance,” he said. “I think the merger study committee has been doing a tremendous amount of very good work … and I would hate to see that work unravelled for hopes and wishes that really to me sound like they are not fully fleshed out.”
The lack of specifics to the idea the town academy group was pushing was a problem for him, he added.
But their group hadn’t planned to present a concrete proposal with all the details fleshed out, Vogel said. That was where Burr and Burton, with its experience and expertise, would eventually come in, once the basic concept had passed muster with voters in some way that encouraged them to proceed with it. And just because the Act 46 study committee had been working for months and was on the threshold of presenting a proposal didn’t mean that another “good idea” should be shelved.
After the meeting, Jon Wilson, the chairman of the merger study group, said the proposal could have the effect of raising uncertainty into the process.
“This could raise a lot of questions, but at the same time raises a lot of uncertainty …. We have a detailed proposal with a higher degree of certainty and I think that people in Manchester will make their decision based on what they see.”
Kate McNabb, a former Manchester school board chairwoman and member of the academy committee, said their next steps would include gathering the necessary signatures and seeing where things go from there.
“If it looks like it’s not a good idea anymore, we won’t turn them in,” she said, adding that they would then have another option to turn to if later on, it does seem like a good idea.
“If BBA comes back and says we can’t make it work, then end of story,” she said.
Next week’s elections could provide some leadership changes that might slow down the timeline on Act 46 mergers or open more discussions around bolstering school choice, Vogel said. The ability of towns which don’t operate their own schools and for parents to continue to have leeway on sending children to schools they consider most appropriate has been a hot topic and a source of criticism of Act 46, which curtails and limits the degree of school choice that available, its opponents have contended.
“We think it’s worthwhile to go forward and at least gather the signatures,” he said. “If nothing changes between now and January and we end up fighting for survival, we obviously won’t push the issue. But in the meantime we still want to get discussion going not only on school choice, but also on Act 46.