Barnard to vote on merging into bigger school district

WOODSTOCK — Nearly a year after the State Board of Education made the final call on reorganizing and consolidating school districts under Act 46, one holdout district has decided to put a merger proposal before its residents – by choice.
Barnard school officials will be asking their townspeople to vote on a new plan to consolidate with the Windsor Central Modified Union on Dec. 10. Barnard residents had previously rejected a merger at the ballot box, and its school board joined on to the multi-district lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Act 46.
But Barnard school officials have now renegotiated what they say would be fair terms for unifying with their neighbors in the Upper Valley towns of Killington, Pomfret, Woodstock, Bridgewater, Plymouth and Reading.
Pamela Fraser, a Barnard representative to the Windsor Central board, told the State Board of Education last month that the arguments for merger here were likely “less grandiose” than those often made by consolidation proponents, but nevertheless worthwhile.
“We feel that it could provide some financial stability,” she said.
Per the State Board’s plan under the consolidation law, 45 districts were consolidated into 11 new unified districts. But in four instances in which the board did not have the authority to require mergers outright – including Barnard’s – it asked already consolidated districts to hold votes on incorporating an independent elementary district before July 1.
This essentially gave larger, regional districts that had previously opted to merge the opportunity to vote to absorb those towns that had resisted coming under their umbrella. Most went ahead and did just that, but in Windsor Central’s case, school board members opted not to, and instead went back to the negotiating table to work out more agreeable terms for all involved.
“When they decided that at that meeting, I remember I said something like ‘Well, I haven’t wanted to join you guys. But now I see how cool you are, and maybe I do,’” Fraser joked.
A merger between Barnard and Windsor Central would have to be twice approved at the ballot box. First, in December, by Barnard residents. If that vote is affirmative, the question will then go to the larger district’s electorate on Town Meeting Day in March.
Opposition to consolidation in Barnard had, in large part, centered on concerns that a unified regional board might cut Barnard elementary’s full-day pre-kindergarten program to match the other schools in the district. But all Windsor Central elementary schools have since expanded their programing.
And board members in the small town had also worried that a school board populated by members from larger neighboring towns might close or restructure the preK-6 Barnard Academy. But rewritten articles of agreement – which would govern the newly unified district, if approved by voters – include some of the most stringent and nuanced protections against school closure in the state.
The State Board, which had to approve Barnard’s latest proposal, unanimously approved the plan. And John Carroll, its chairman, complimented the work of local officials.
“You’ve done a pretty good job negotiating an improvement in terms, especially in light of the fact that you didn’t have a whole lot of leverage. Nice work,” he said.

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