Questions remain for future of BVSU

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ARLINGTON — The secretary of education did not recommend a merger for the Arlington or Sandgate school districts in a report released last week, but whether the two districts will be allowed to continue operating as the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union is still up in the air.

Should the state Board of Education follow the recommendations of acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey when it finalizes its statewide education plan in November, the Arlington and Sandgate school districts would continue to exist. However, the secretary explicitly left open the possibility of the state board dissolving the BVSU and moving both districts into the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union.

Under Act 46, the education bill passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2015, the secretary of education was to present a plan to the state Board of Education, making recommendations on how to merge districts that had too few students and had not yet merged voluntarily. Arlington and Sandgate fell under that umbrella, as did the districts of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union to the south. That report was released to the public on the evening on June 1.

In the 189-page report, Arlington was one of 10 districts for which it was determined that a merger was not practicable, possible or both, in this case because of Arlington's geographic isolation from any other like-structured districts. Non-operating Sandgate is close enough to three other non-operating districts — Searsburg, Stratton and Winhall — that the secretary considered recommending a merger. The final decision, though, was that Sandgate should remain a distinct district because a merger with Winhall and Stratton would increase the tax burden on Sandgate residents and provide little in terms of new opportunities for Sandgate students, among other reasons.

While the news that the secretary was not recommending that either district be entered into a merger was welcome, said BVSU Superintendent Bill Bazyk, the report did not provide any definitive language about the future of the BVSU.

"Note, however, that even if the State Board declines to merge the governance structure of this district, nothing precludes the Board from redrawing SU boundaries in a way that causes it to become a member of a different SU," reads the conclusion of the secretary's recommendation on Sandgate. Similar language follows the Arlington entry.

In the final section of the report, which addresses the state board's ability to re-draw supervisory union boundaries, the secretary mentions Arlington and Sandgate specifically: "In no particular order of significance, and with the recognition that some of the following are incompatible, some of the SU boundary adjustments that the State Board might want to consider might include ... Assigning the Arlington and Sandgate Districts to the Bennington-Rutland SU."

Both the BVSU districts and the BRSU have expressed hesitation about a union between the two SU's. In Arlington and Sandgate's Section 9 reports, which the secretary's office used to compile Friday's recommendations, both districts asked that, should re-assignment be deemed necessary, that the change be effective on July 1, 2021, giving them an additional two years over what is written into the law to make the transition.

"This timeframe would allow time for a thoughtful, successful transition of the ASD to a new SU, as well as a thoughtful closure of the BVSU," read Arlington's Section 9 Report. "With the current transition work being done within the BRSU (Taconic & Green, Rupert/Pawlet), the SU office resources are focused on those major changes. It would be detrimental to those districts to change the focus of resources within the BRSU to concurrently take on the ASD as a new district. The BRSU has not previously operated a public high school and, as a result, bringing in a PreK-12 district will require that thought be put in to how to best support the 9-12 grades with curriculum and resource planning. Having a defined timeline with adequate planning will allow both SUs to consider their staff resources and the impact this will have on current employees; employment agreements/contracts within both SUs will need to be coordinated, consolidated, and in some cases eliminated. With the complexity of the changes to take place, the additional transition time is felt to be required to properly address the different topics."

The BRSU wrote a letter to the State Board of Education earlier this year asking that the BVSU districts not be assigned into the BRSU. "While the BRSU appreciates the difficulty of designing plans for consolidation and restructuring of the districts that have not found a way forward with Act 46/49, we believe that the addition of the BVSU districts to the BRSU would have a range of negative impacts on the BRSU - impacting our ability to focus on continuing to improve quality of education, stretching our resources to the point of impacting our ability to do a good job with the challenges we already face, and in financial terms as we strive to better manage our budgets," it reads. "For these reasons, the BRSU Board does not support the assignment of the BVSU districts to the BRSU."

Bazyk said that the BVSU district boards would meet over the summer to discuss the secretary's recommendation and prepare a presentation for the State Board of Education when it holds a public hearing in this portion of the state this fall.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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