Pawlet, Rupert talk about proposed school merger

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PAWLET — The communities in Pawlet and Rupert remain divided regarding the proposed school district merger, required under Vermont's Act 46, following a community forum on Aug. 10.

Under Act 46, which recently resulted in the creation of the Taconic and Green School District in Manchester, communities are required to explore the voluntary merging of school districts into larger unions in the interest of increasing sustainability while maintaining educational goals.

This poses a problem for the rural and relatively isolated communities of Pawlet and Rupert, which rest along the New York border. While many students have attended the nearby Salem and Granville schools, others have chosen to attend Manchester-area schools.

Under the proposed merger, up for discussion at Thursday's forum, the Granville Jr./Sr. High School and the Salem Washington Academy would be the designated schools for students in 7th to 12th grade, as there is no existing high school in either Pawlet or Rupert.

The newly formed "Mettawee School District" would qualify as a "side-by-side" merger to the Taconic and Green Regional School District, and would retain the ability to allow students in grades 7 through 12 to attend schools other than those designated.

At the community forum on the proposal, some community members expressed support for the proposed merger while others questioned the educational standards of the New York schools versus Vermont institutions, as well as the merger's impact on taxes.

"I think there's really good reasons to have designation, which has worked well for a long time in Rupert. It has its costs, and it has its benefits," said David Nichols of Rupert. "The one fundamental thing that makes me change my view on this matter, is that I would like Rupert to be a place where young families with children want to come and buy a home, raise their children there, and when the time comes, they can have a choice. They can affordably send their children to either Salem or Manchester."

For the aging communities in both Pawlet and Rupert, the issue of attracting more young families to the rural region is a poignant one.

"As our population ages and fewer young people are moving to town, I think that school choice is an enormous issue for young families," said Jane Days, who has been a resident of Rupert for 17 years. "I've spoken to many of them, some who have expressed a real love for the Rupert area, but not an interest in having someone tell them where to send their kids. ... I think it's a real turn-off to families who may want to move to Rupert to not have that choice themselves."

For others, the discussion has focused too heavily on population and financial outcomes, and not enough on what is best for local children.

"This is our future we're talking about; these kids are our future. I haven't really heard anybody talking about the children and the students, and what's best for them," said Erin Jackson, a resident of Pawlet who grew up in Granville. "I'm interested in what opportunities these kids would get if they were able to go to Vermont schools in the area versus what they're going to get in a New York school. I haven't heard that addressed."

"As we sit here today, I'm not sure that I've been given facts," added her husband Tom Jackson, also of Pawlet. "I'd like to know for certain that if my son is designated to go to a New York school, that the fact is he will achieve or receive an equal or better education."

Scott McChesney of the merger study committee had previously presented a compromise plan that would allow Pawlet and Rupert to designate Salem and Granville for 7th and 8th grades, but offer school choice by paying the state average tuition rates for students that wish to attend a Vermont school. McChesney claims that this plan would eliminate one third of the potential tax increase from the full choice option, as it would be for a four-year period rather than a six-year period.

"It would carry on tradition but with some flexibility," said McChesney, though the plan failed to gain traction in the committee. "So maybe this could be the silver lining that comes out of all those years of contention in our communities. We could offer something more, something better, and at a lesser cost."

"Act 46, from what I understand, is about providing an equal opportunity for education to students in Vermont," said Deborah Fuller of Rupert, speaking in support of McChesney's plan. "I support choice, I support the compromise. I do not have children, [but] I think that the schools and education of our students is very important as we look towards the future. The next 40 years. The next 100 years."

The meeting, which lasted over two hours, allowed a multitude of community members to speak on the issue as well as representatives from across the New York border.

"Losing students means losing population and opportunities for programming, which impacts obviously our students in Granville and it impacts the entire school — sports numbers, team numbers, opportunities for elective in classes," said Thomas D. McGurl, superintendent of the Granville Central School District, in response to questions about the impact on the New York schools. "Those all have to be considered when you lose approximately 90 students out of your population. There is money involved as well; it would have a significant financial impact to the Granville school district."

Like the community, the committee is also split on the issue, voting 4 to 3 to maintain designation. Utilizing the community input from the public forum, the committee will meet again on Aug. 30th to address changes to the study before handing it off to the state Agency of Education in September.

This article was written with assistance from video filmed by Andrew McKeever, news director at Greater Northshire Access Television. Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.


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