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Northeast Kingdom School Districts Eye Consolidation

As the Legislature explores ways to slow the rapid rise in education spending by consolidating services, at least two school supervisory unions in the Northeast Kingdom are considering a merger.

But opinions differ about whether such marriages can actually save money while maintaining local control and quality programs.

In Vermont, as in other states, the push for consolidating school districts usually comes from the Legislature, not school boards themselves. Voters are often wary of losing local control over their schools. But in the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union encompassing Danville, Walden, Barnet, and Peacham, the resignation of a controversial superintendent has spurred talks about joining another district.

A recent meeting at Danville’s Masonic Lodge brought about 40 people to hear proposals from, among others, Rick Cochran. He’s a businessman from Walden, where the school budget was voted down five times last year before finally being accepted with what some saw as drastic cuts.

"We’ll hear more this evening, but it’s been suggested that it could save as much as $500,000 by doing this. I think it makes perfect sense," Cochran said.

Some participants in this grassroots movement are warming to the idea of merging with the Caledonia Essex Supervisory Union, which includes Concord, Guildhall, Waterford, Granby, Vistory, Maidstone, Kirby, and Lunenberg. In fact, they got an invitation at the meeting from the superintendent of that union, Brian Rayburn. He says he was required by the state to conduct a study of the possible benefits of district consolidation, but couldn’t find any willing partners for a merger — until now.

“What I looked at when the resignation of your superintendent was announced, is that this was an opportunity for our board to reach out and talk to your board and see if there’s common ground, to see if there’s ways to save money, to see if there’s ways to consolidate,” Rayburn told the audience.

At the meeting, some worried that educational quality would suffer, and local control would weaken, if the schools in and around Danville were to become part of a much larger district based many miles away. Nicole Foster is the parent of two children in Danville. She also teaches high school in another district.

“When it comes to accounts payable, that’s definitely something I think that could be consolidated. But when it comes to the curriculum direction and superintendents supervising principals, I think that is an area that we cannot, we absolutely cannot afford any more cuts,” Foster said.

Others doubt that enough staffing cuts can be made to yield significant savings through a merger. Sandy Hauserman serves on the Danville School Board.

“I don’t think it’s humanly possible to reduce that staff by that much and still deliver services over such a wide area to the level that they are being produced now. I think that’s fantasy that you can do that,” Hauserman declared.

He challenged Superintendent Rayburn, who wants to combine his district with the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union, to show specifically where consolidation turned out to be cost effective.

“Give me one example,” he insisted.

In fact, a report conducted for the Vermont legislature by the James M. Jeffords Center for Policy Research says it’s too early to tell how much savings have been realized by the only successful merger so far in the state. The report also concludes that strong school boards tend to oppose consolidation with other school boards. The question of whether to move forward with a voluntary merger in the Northeast Kingdom is likely to come up as non-binding resolutions on Town Meeting Day. It will also be on the agenda of a future Caledonia Central Supervisory Union meeting, and a citizens' committee has formed to research the pros and cons of the merger.

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