Committee votes to merge Rupert, Pawlet schools
The decision comes following the rejection of the groups Act 46 proposal by the Vermont State Board of Education on Sept. 20, which outlined the creation of a single district that would operate a pre-kindergarten through 6th grade elementary school and designate students in grades 7 through 12 to New York Schools (Granville and Salem, specifically.)
"They denied the proposal and asked us to try to find a way to merge the districts, and then let the new board deal with the designation versus non-designation issue," said Committee Chairwoman Susan Hosley. "Their concern seemed to be about equity, and whether or not the legislature would indeed pass designation."
While there is currently a law that allows Rupert and Pawlet to designate to schools outside of Vermont, the New York schools have lower tuition rates, keeping the tax rate artificially low in Rupert and Pawlet.
With Salem and Granville designated as the newly-formed districts primary high schools, as laid out in the original proposal, students wishing to attend another public or independent school in Vermont would receive the least amount of tuition for the designated schools ($5,495) rather than the state average tuition. The Board expressed concerns that only families able to afford the difference in tuition could send their children to independent institutions like the Long Trail School or Burr and Burton Academy.
"I still believe it's in your best interest to move forward with the merger," said BRSU Superintendent Jackie Wilson. "I see the only path forward to be accepting to support tuition in grades 7 through 12, and non-designation in grades 7 through 12."
The primary opponents to the proposal submitted by the Merger Study Committee is a group named "Families for Education in Vermont," which consists of approximately 250 parents from Rupert and Pawlet. After sending a letter to the State Board of Education advocating for a merger without designation, members were represented by a pro-bono lawyer at the Sept. 20 meeting to argue their position.
"I think the democratic process was completely perverted; I was speechless up there," said Committee Member John Malcolm. "The Board of Education, I felt, relied more on an advocacy group's document than the two year document we had done in public."
Throughout the committee meeting Thursday members of the group disagreed vocally with statements made by committee members, with Hosley threatening to cancel the meeting if decorum could not be reached.
"You folks have gone out of the family; you had a lawyer represent you whether it was pro-bono or whatever," said Malcolm. "Why didn't we just throw this out two years ago?"
"This is a political thing; it's not a matter of law, it's a matter of politics. It's a matter of lobbying," said Committee Member William Meyer, explaining why he would oppose the merger. "What we're in the process of considering is ignoring the democratically arrived at choices and giving in as the state board did to lobbying effort."
Though multiple committee members expressed disappointment with the Board's decision, the committee voted 4 to 3 [with Hosley, Malcom, and Meyer voting "no," and Eugene Ceglowski, Diane Mach, Scott McChesney, and William Morrisey voting "yes"] to pursue the merger rather than an appeal.
"It was unusual to have a merger that was supported by the State Agency of Education not approved by the State Board of Education; I think we were all surprised," said Wilson. "I support getting the merger done, and if there's still a strong feeling in the communities that you want to re-establish designation the new board can do that."
"Whichever direction this goes forward, whether as choice or as designation, it should have been in our hands as a community to have that initial vote," said Hosley, noting that the two year process had been a difficult one. "That was really removed from us, and that is the primary reason for the way I voted tonight. I really feel that our democratic process here was taken away a little bit."
Following the vote the committee opened the meeting up for public comment, with members of "Families for Education in Vermont," taking the floor to defend their position.
"It was very clear to the State Board that there was a fundamental lack of parity in what our Merger Committee was trying to push through," said Michael Krauss of Rupert. "This is foolish; it's a family fighting amongst themselves. Let's make this happen so the majority of people in town can have the advantage of whichever choice they decide — whether New York School or otherwise."
Other speakers encouraged a larger focus on the facts of the issue, as well as more civil discussion, following a divisive process for the two communities.
"I feel strongly that we need to tone down the rhetoric. We are the people that our children look up to; we set an example. You better look in your hearts and ask `am I setting a good example?'" said Arlene Bentley of Rupert, who served on the initial Merger Study Committee. "As a teacher, I would say that some of you are not. This town is going to remain divided if people don't begin to talk civilly to one another."
Members of the Merger Study Committee will return to the State Board of Education on Oct. 18 for approval of their new plan to merge without designation, leaving choice as the default option. If approved, a new Mettawee School District (and subsequently, and new school board) will be formed for the towns of Rupert and Pawlet.
Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.
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