Winhall seeking clarity on Act 46 merger

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WINHALL — The Winhall School Board will again reach out to its counterparts in Stratton and Sandgate to inquire about a potential merger, even as the state Agency of Education has proposed that the Winhall district need not merge with anyone under Act 46.

At its meeting on Tuesday, board members said they were surprised that the AOE had not requested a merger, but remain wary that the state Board of Education, which has the final say, might deviate from the AOE's proposal this fall.

A lot hinges upon those state decisions. Winhall's popularity as a K-12 non-operating district — one that offers full school choice — has led to rising costs and financial uncertainty for the district. But the lack of certainty from Montpelier has made it difficult for the board to set a cost-containment strategy.

"As much as I want to believe it's expressly off the table, it's still on the table," board member Dean Gianotti Jr. said of the lingering potential for a merger, or for the district to be moved out of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union.

Previously, Act 46 talks with Stratton and Sandgate ended without an agreement in place to consolidate, as the tax impact from Winhall's school choice situation remained a major hurdle.

But those districts are now in the same boat as Winhall, as non-operating K-12 districts still awaiting final direction from Montpelier.

While questioning whether those districts would see incentive in merging with Winhall, board members agreed there's no harm in again initiating a conversation to find out if the circumstances have changed. Board chair Jen Samuelson said she would reach out to those towns, and the board voted 3-0 to authorize the inquiry.

The board also voted unanimously to ask BRSU assistant superintendent Randi Kulis to reach out to the Northeast Kingdom Choice School District, a K-12 district formed between 10 non-operating rural districts.

"I think it's worth looking into," Gianotti said. "Just for our own curiosity. If that's even a long shot, it's worth it."

The vagueness in the AOE proposal, Samuelson said, does give Winhall the chance to assess its options carefully, rather than make a rushed decision. "I feel like we got a little bit of time to breathe and act thoughtfully," she said.

Another factor the board considered is whether changes in special education funding recently signed into law will impact the town's tuition payments. Under that law, independent schools that accept public tuition must accept special education students and be fully certified for special education services. If an independent school chooses not to certify and no longer accepts public fundng, there remains a possibility that some Winhall parents might still pay the full tuition themselves.

The board also voted to send a letter to the AOE correcting some facts cited in its proposal for Winhall. Chief among those: The proposal says that Winhall voters "have discussed beginning to pay tuition in the statutory amount" and reached a one-year agreement with Burr and Burton Academy to pay the state average rather than BBA's sending rate. In fact, Winhall was already paying the state average tuition for every school except BBA.

When BBA offered to accept the state average tuition for the 2018-19 school year — a concession worth more than $61,000 — it made clear that the deal was good for one year, and would never be repeated. Since that time, a larger discussion about the BBA question has yet to take place.

The board decided to hold that public discussion at its next meeting, set for Aug. 23. At that meeting, the board will also take up comments for the Board of Education's Sept. 19 public hearing in Chester on the Act 46 district plan. And it will receive a comparison worksheet from Kulis and the BRSU laying out hypothetical tax impacts if it were to merge with another district, if it were to join the Taconic and Green Regional School District, if it were to remain a stand-alone district, and what impact a decrease in enrollment would have.

The Taconic and Green question remains on the back burner, members said, until there's more certainty about whether the district will be asked to merge.

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