School district remains intact

GRANVILLE/HANCOCK — Granville and Hancock last month were granted a reprieve in a search for a new supervisory union — for now, at least.
In a March 2010 Town Meeting Day vote, residents of Bethel and Rochester voted to leave the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union. Since those towns contain the only two high schools in the supervisory union, the resolutions prompted a more-than-yearlong study on closing the supervisory union by the state Board of Education.
During that time, communities in the towns of Bethel, Rochester, Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Hancock and Granville found themselves in limbo, where they struggled to find a merger solution that could have set a precedent in the state.
But the study came to an end at a Board of Education meeting on May 17 with the decision to keep the supervisory union open and in operation for the time being. Mark Oettinger, legal counsel to the Vermont Department of Education, cited difficulty finding another supervisory union that could take on the additional administrative burden.
“There wasn’t an obvious solution that presented itself,” said Oettinger.
And as the study wore on, the impetus for a merger waned. While Bethel and Rochester had chosen to withdraw from the supervisory union due to ongoing management and financial problems within the supervisory union’s administration, pressure from the two towns has waned as over the past year WNwSU has got new staff and taken steps toward a more stable financial position.
“The Bethel deficit has been reduced,” said Oettinger. “And no one was really advocating for regrouping anymore.”
With regard to Act 153, which requires supervisory unions and districts to consolidate resources and services within their existing boundaries, Oettinger said WNwSU is further along than many others.
“Windsor Northwest already has a centralized approach to things,” he said. “Surrounding supervisory unions are not as far along in that process.”
Neighboring supervisory unions, including Orange Southwest Supervisory Union to the east, are struggling to conform to these requirements in areas like centralized special education services, centralized transportation and unified curricula by the fall of 2013. In a letter to the Vermont Board of Education, WNwSU administrators stated that redrawing the boundaries would be counterproductive to efforts to conform.
So although Oettinger said redrawing of supervisory union boundaries may be approached in years to come, it was time to put the issue to rest so that the supervisory union could address other issues.
“We’re going to continue to have these kinds of conversations,” said Oettinger. “But they needed to know sooner rather than later so that they could get on with things.
The decision came as a relief to many within WNwSU. In March, Superintendent John Poljacik said that in the face of limited options available to the supervisory union, he was hoping for more time.
And Rose Juliano, a member of the Hancock school board, said that the supervisory union decision is a relief, since it allows the board to turn its attention to other issues. But she said there’s still plenty to address. Since Hancock and Granville shuttered their shared elementary school two years ago, the towns have relied on other schools within the district to educate their elementary students.
“Our main concern for the people of Hancock is what’s going to happen to Rochester (schools),” she said.
While most students in Hancock head to Rochester for school, declining student populations in both Bethel and Rochester are raising questions about the future of both high schools.
School population issues are likely to come up in the next couple of years as the state ramps up its push for administrative consolidation. But, said Oettinger, merger scenarios — especially when it comes to school consolidation — are likely to come up again after the 2013 deadline, once supervisory unions and school districts have streamlined their operations. At that point, he said, the move to consolidate is likely to be locally driven, not mandated by the state.
“There is very little question that a merger of supervisory unions and/or merger of districts has that saving effect,” he said. “Two years from now, when the 2013 deadline has come and gone, there will be more opportunities for large-scale administrative change.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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