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Stowe residents continue talks on taking schools independent

By   /   March 20, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by Bruce Parker

‘STOWE ACADEMY’: Residents of Stowe discuss taking the town’s public schools independent as an alternative to merging with other towns under Act 46, Vermont’s new district consolidation law.

 

STOWE, Vt. — Local residents met last week to discuss taking Stowe’s public schools independent as an alternative to consolidating under Vermont’s Act 46 education law.

On Tuesday, residents unhappy with merger options under Act 46 met at the Stowe Free Library to hear a presentation on Vermont’s independent town academies.

The event was hosted by the Stowe Local Schools Initiative, a 501c3 organization formed to investigate the option of going independent. The group plans to meet every two weeks between now and fall, when it will make a formal recommendation to the community and the Stowe School Board.

“We are in the process of doing an exhaustive study to see whether or not this is an option that may work for Stowe School District, and if it’s something the community would be interested in and support,” said Lisa Senecal, a committee member of the Stowe Local Schools Initiative.

Unlike private schools, Vermont’s approved independent schools serve all students in the community, including special needs students, and are eligible to receive public funds.

Historic town academies include high schools such as Lyndon Institute, Burr and Burton, St. Johnsbury Academy and Thetford Academy. In recent years, two elementary schools made the switch from from public to independent: the pre-K-6 Village School of North Bennington and the pre-K-8 Mountain School at Winhall.

Since Act 46 passed last year, Stowe School Board members have been talking with leaders of other districts in the Lamoille South Supervisory Union to investigate forming a single district of more than 900 students, a goal of Act 46. Neither Stowe nor the newly formed Elmore-Morristown Unified Union (EMUU) has the requisite number of students and must look for a merger partner or seek an exemption from the Agency of Education.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Stowe residents expressed concerns that merging with EMUU would result in lost control over the town’s elementary, middle and high schools.

“If we did merge with that district (EMUU), we would have the required number of students, but there is a strong likelihood that because their population is larger than Stowe’s, Stowe could end up with a minority voice on the merged school board that would be making budgetary and other decisions,” Senecal said.

Stowe residents have reason to fear that Act 46 could change their schools, which rank among the top public schools in the state.

The last time the town weighed a merger with Morristown, under Act 153, one option was to close Stowe High School and send students to Peoples Academy in Morrisville. Likewise Morrisville’s middle schoolers would be bussed to Stowe. If Stowe merges with the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union under Act 46, some similar arrangement might have to be worked out.

Since Stowe started investigating the independent option, leaders from Craftsbury, Waitsfield, Warren and South Hero have contacted Stowe Local Schools Initiative for information on how to go independent.

“We did a survey at Town Meeting, and half of them said to explore an independent school,” Craftsbury school board member Harry Miller told Vermont Watchdog.

“Everyone talks about local control, but we call it community investment. Our community is invested in our school big time, and that’s what they’re most concerned about — losing that part of our community.”

According to Miller, Craftsbury considered closing its schools about a decade ago. But after recovering from five bond defeats, the district renovated facilities, built an energy-efficient gym and increased students — all while holding down costs.

“We’re frustrated with Act 46,” said Steve Moffatt, chair of the Craftsbury School Board. “We’ve expanded our education options and increased our numbers and kept our cost the same — even decreased a little bit  — and we feel that Act 46 is punishing us for what we should be doing.”

Craftsbury, which has one of the nine school boards within the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, oversees education for about 175 students. The supervisory union contains a complex mix of elementary and high schools, some with school choice and some without. The complexity makes it difficult for Craftsbury to find a merger acceptable to the community.

“We’re trying to look at all our options. We have a very complicated supervisory union,” Moffatt said.

Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, was present at the meeting to explain how independent schools work and answer questions.

Moore’s slide presentation covered a range of issues, from types of independent schools and their governance, to the ongoing relationship independent schools have with their districts and supervisory unions.

According to Moore, if Stowe transforms its current public schools into a town academy, the schools would likely be led by a single head of school — a principal-superintendent hybrid — and a board of trustees. Stowe’s school district would not disappear, but instead become a non-operating district with continuing legal responsibility for the education of all students.

As with the public school model, the state and town would fully cover tuition for students, with the tuition rate set by the town. The budget for independent town academies is calculated by multiplying tuition rate and the number of students in the school. Teachers are not unionized in independent schools, and special education funding works the same as in public schools.

The Stowe School District would be responsible for obtaining tuition money for all students, not only those who would attend Stowe Academy. Since Stowe would become a school choice town, families would have the option to send their kids to public, independent or private schools in other Vermont towns, and the public money would follow the student.

Switching from public to independent can be a money-saving move. When Village School of North Bennington went independent in 2013, its annual costs dropped from $2.1 million to $1.8 million.

“That’s a reasonable part of your due diligence, as you approach Act 46, to look at these options,” Moore told the group. “There may be other districts that choose to do the same thing — close their public school, become a non-operating district, become a choice town and operate that way.”

The Stowe Local Schools Initiative is scheduled to hold its next informational meeting on March 29 at the Green Mountain Inn.

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

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Bruce Parker is a reporter for Watchdog.org. His stories have been featured at FoxNews.com, Bloomberg, Politico, The Daily Caller, the Washington Times, Human Events and Thomson, among other outlets. Contact him at bparker@watchdog.org or follow him on Twitter @WatchdogVT.