Towns seek new school district
GRANVILLE / HANCOCK — Not two years after Hancock and Granville shuttered their shared elementary school, school boards in both towns are facing yet another potential closure.
This time, it is the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union (WNwSU) that is mulling its options following a March 2010 vote by Bethel and Rochester residents to withdraw from the union.
This decision was the response to a number of management and financial issues within WNwSU, which includes the communities of Bethel, Rochester, Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Hancock and Granville. Though Rochester and Bethel are still working to find a way to leave the union, those two towns contain the only two high schools in WNwSU, and their departure would likely mean that the supervisory union would be dissolved.
This has meant a year of uncertainty for Granville and Hancock school boards. The Vermont Department of Education has set a soft deadline of September for the school boards to choose a new supervisory union, but Bruce Hyde, a member of the Granville school board, said it’s not been easy to find one willing to take the towns on.
“We’re in a quandary about where to go,” Hyde said.
Hyde and Rose Juliano, a member of the Hancock school board, both said the priority for the two school boards is to preserve their school choice policy, which allows Granville and Hancock to tuition students to the schools of their choosing — right now, most head to Rochester, though some go over the mountain to Middlebury.
While an obvious choice for Granville is to join Washington West Supervisory Union, just north of WNwSU, Hyde said that district does not have school choice, and so does not want to take on the Granville district unless it changes its policies.
Hyde said the Granville school board’s primary need from a supervisory union is administrative coverage.
“We’re looking more for a business manager capability in a supervisory union,” said Hyde.
But so far, no district wants to take on more administrative work without the guarantee that its schools will also get increased enrollment.
A STATEWIDE ISSUE
Juliano, a former teacher, said the Hancock school board is looking to cultivate discussion among townspeople on the future of Hancock’s education system. It’s been difficult to get people involved given the current uncertainty on the administrative level.
“We’re really in a holding pattern until we find out what’s going on with the supervisory union,” she said.
WNwSU Interim Superintendent John Poljacik, who took over the leadership position following the resignation of former superintendent Tim Mock last March, said the administration and state are working to find a viable solution for all area students, especially in light of the state’s encouragement of school board and supervisory union consolidation. But that, he said, is easier said than done.
“We’ve found that in this particular geographical area, no one is studying consolidation,” he said. “We’re not finding a great deal of receptiveness from other supervisory unions.”
He said that school boards could rest assured that there would be a workable solution for the students.
“No one’s going to be left in limbo,” he said.
In recent months, Poljacik and the WNwSU administration have been working with the schools in the district to predict the outcomes — on a financial, tax and educational quality level — of different routes that they might take.
“There are so many implications that we’ve turned up in this study,” he said. “We need more information and time to keep studying, and more guidance from the state.”
One of the difficulties with the current situation is that school board and supervisory union consolidation has little precedent in the state — the school board merger that’s been on the table for six years in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union would set a precedent (voters there approved the unification last Tuesday, but administrators are waiting to see if there will be a revote).
While Act 153, an education law passed last year, encourages voluntary school district mergers, many districts have pointed out that there is little guidance for how to go about merging schools.
Mark Oettinger, general counsel to the Vermont Department of Education, said the state board of education has the right to make an executive decision to place the Granville and Hancock into supervisory unions if the school boards are unable to find one that will take them on, but he said the state is encouraging a voluntary solution.
“We wouldn’t want to act without having the input of some discussions,” he said.
On March 15, the Granville and Hancock school boards will meet with state administrators to give a progress update, and Oettinger said the path forward would be clearer following that.
Poljacik said his hope for that meeting is to be allowed to study options unrestricted by the September deadline.
“We’re just having trouble finding dance partners,” Poljacik said. “The best thing that can happen right now is for the state to give us more time.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].