Vermont educators share school merger success stories

NORTHFIELD — State officials used Gov. Phil Scott’s Dec. 18 Education Summit to drive home the point that school mergers have saved significant amounts of money and enabled merged districts to improve educational opportunities for students.
Two panel discussions at the summit featured administrators and school board members from merged districts.
The merger of the Northfield and Williamstown school districts created a single district with a student population of just over 900 students, said board member Peter Evans. Before the merger, both districts had their own superintendent and supervisory union staff. One of those offices was eliminated.
“There’s immediate savings there,” said Evans.
The district continues to operate two K-12 schools, but is looking at duplication of services, he said, and has been able to expand language offerings and create classes with more than 10 students.
“We’re both learning about the other community,” said Evans. Many of the larger decisions are still to come, he said, including should each of the high schools become a magnet school with a particular focus, or should the district create a merged middle school and a merged high school?
Bridget Nease is the superintendent at the Harwood Unified Union School District, which operates seven campuses with 1,800 students.
“We have a capacity now that we have never had,” she said. The district has saved $130,000 in its first year, but is looking to make larger changes.
“We still have too-small classes,” said Nease.
Addressing the larger problem of school costs that continue to climb, Nease said, “We have a statewide problem. It requires a statewide solution.”
Property tax rates are projected to increase an average of 9.4 cents statewide next year, absent spending reductions. “This is unsustainable for taxpayers,” said Nease.
Part of the post-merger challenge is having people come out of their comfort zones, she said. There are plenty of opportunities to share resources, Nease suggested, if people are willing to act on them.
“We buy microscopes in six buildings, for example,” she said.
There are also opportunities to learn from successes at schools in other parts of the district. Waterbury-Duxbury, for example, has a strong program for preschoolers, which is attracting young families to the area, said Nease.
Similarly, Williamstown students are able to take advantage of Northfield’s success with dual enrollment in college courses, said Evans.
Tom “Geo” Honigford is a school board member from Royalton, which was part of a 10-town school merger. “We sat at the table and said, ‘We can’t keep doing what we’re doing.’”
“We wouldn’t do anything different if we didn’t have challenges,” said Honigford. “How we’re educating kids in Vermont has to change. We need to rethink how we do everything.”
Addressing the notion that towns in Vermont are too different and varied to create a single school district, Honigford said, “We’re not different. You need to go to West Africa to see difference. Our differences are really small.”
Collectively, those 10 towns operated four high schools graduating just 80 kids a year. “We’ve done nothing but cut programs,” said Honigford. “We saw the smaller schools falling apart … and we knew that’s where we were heading.”
Half of the classes in the high schools had fewer than seven kids in them.
By combining, the new district no longer has eighth grade students playing on high school sports teams, because the board was able to restore junior varsity sports, said Honigford. They’ve also been able to bring back band and increase academic offerings.
The merger is projected to save $800,000, some of which is going to be used to hire two new teachers.
The district has also started an exploratory education program. “What we’re doing for kids is terribly exciting and we’re saving taxpayers money,” said Honigford.
Michael Clark, a superintendent in the Northeast Kingdom, advocated of the elimination of his own job with the merger of two supervisory unions and the reduction of 22 school districts to just three.
The elimination of a supervisory union office alone will save $500,000, said Clark.
The merger, he said, is creating “lots of opportunities for students and lots of savings for taxpayers.”
Echoing Honigford’s remarks, Clark said all schools  have essentially the same mission statement.
“We’re really not that different,” he noted.
David Youngstown, superintendent at the Mill River Unified Union School District in Rutland County, said his district has saved $250,000 just in buildings and grounds, and that’s after paying the salary of a new director to oversee maintenance at the district’s schools.
The merged district has a $16 million budget and is projecting a $700,000 surplus at the end of this school year, the result of operational savings.
The district has four elementary schools ranging in size from 50 students to 160 students. Closure is always a fear for the smallest schools, said Youngstown. “We’re focusing on how do we make sure each of our schools is viable.”
Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District (MMMUSD) was one of the first mergers in the state, predating Act 46. It combined all but one of the elementary schools that cooperatively operated Mount Mansfield Union High School with the high school in a single district.
Since the merger, parents have been excited about what the new district has been able to do for students, including a language immersion program and consolidating special education services to create a stronger program, according to school board member Diane Kirson-Glitman.
John Alberghini, superintendent of the Chittenden East Supervisory Union, said, “We’ve realized a lot of administrative savings,” since the creation of MMMUSD.
Prior to the merger that created the MMMUSD, class sizes were “all over the place,” he said. Last year, the district was able to stabilize elementary class sizes at 17-18 kids. “There’s an economy of size and scale that you get when you’re able to unify,” said Alberghini.
The equalized class sizes are the result of elementary school choice within the district, which has also allowed MMMUSD to avoid hiring additional teachers.
The merger has enabled MMMUSD to increase art offerings at small schools.
Another advantage has been that MMMUSD has been able to retain good teachers by moving them between schools when student numbers changed. “The benefit of that is huge,” said Alberghini. It also allows teachers to broaden their own experience by transferring to other schools and/or grade levels.
“The future’s wide open,” said Kirson-Glitman. “You don’t know what you can do in a merged system until you get in one.”
Representing a merged district is more work for board members, she said: “We’re building a community not around a town, but around a group of towns.”
Jeanne Collins is superintendent at the Otter Valley Unified Union School District, which operates five elementary schools in the Brandon area. The largest has 400 students and the second largest 220. The remaining three — Leicester Central and Whiting and Sudbury elementary — are all located within five miles of one another and have a combined total of 10 teachers and 92 students.
Merging the three schools would reduce the number of teachers from 10 to seven, said Collins.
“What small is helpful for is relationships,” said Collins. Parents like small schools because all of the adults know their child, she suggested. But where small can hurt is when there is just one student in a grade level, or just one boy or one girl in that grade level, she said.
It also makes hiring a challenge. “It’s so hard to find someone who will work one day or a half day a week,” said Collins.
As a result, only the largest of the five elementary schools has been able to offer a world language.
Collins remarks were echoed by Bonnie Bourne, chair of the Otter Valley board. “One of our small schools had no librarian,” said Bourne. But the largest school had more librarian time than needed. So the first thing the board did was to share the librarian between the two schools.
“We were able to accomplish the same thing in band,” Bourne said. By sharing a teacher, they were able to bring instrumental music instruction back to two of the small schools.
The small schools were also having to create multi-age classrooms. “We were being reactive in terms of multi-age classrooms,” said Bourne. When multi-age isn’t done sequentially, it can be harmful for kids, she said.
Staff retention can be a challenge for small schools. “Sometimes the entire faculty would turn over in a year,” said Bourne, undoing the benefit of a multi-age classroom where students can build long-term relationships with teachers.
Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories from the education summit; the first ran in our Dec. 21 edition. Click here to read the first story in Michele Monroe’s series.    

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