The discussion was prompted by a letter sent by WSSU Superboard Chair Seth Boyd. “This spring our supervisory union realized we were falling into transition mode,” Boyd said. “Our superintendent was resigning and there was the impending resignation of our business manager – two key roles. We had the tough task of figuring out ‘What do we do now? We have some experience with the challenges and benefits of collaborating with our neighbors and figuring out what might work and what doesn’t, so we decided to see if WCSU would be willing to talk about how we might share services.”
WCSU Superboard Chair Emily Long said Boyd’s letter was received positively by WCSU. “We thought, why would we not have the conversation if it’s about improved educational opportunity for our children?” she said.
Boyd said WSSU made an overture to WCSU because of the similarities the two supervisory unions share. “We both have towns with some small elementary schools, and Twin Valley is our only middle/high school. The supervisory unions to the east and west of us have a different makeup. We felt the similarities were unique. And we’re not so geographically isolated as we are with some of the others.”
The meeting was facilitated by Vermont School Boards Association Executive Director Stephen Dale. Dale noted that the discussion, though informal, could lead to a more formal agreement under Act 156 to study collaboration or consolidation options. The state offers a grant of up to $5,000 to study the opportunities and, if the two supervisory unions were to pursue consolidation, a grant of up to $20,000 could be obtained from the state. “We’ve heard a lot of conversation about consolidation in the Legislature,” Dale said. “But we’ve learned that forced consolidation is not the way to go in Vermont, so the law that was passed is a set of opportunities for the boards to come together and get help to explore their options.”
Dale broke the meeting up into four groups to brainstorm answers to two questions: “What do we want for our children that we cannot currently achieve separately?” and “What operational improvements, effectiveness, and efficiency could be achieved through joint efforts?”
“We’re going to look at what the possible opportunities are,” Dale said. “The idea is to generate a whole lot of ideas, and then pick a few. Nobody will be disappointed if there is no agreement to merge the two SUs when we leave here tonight.”
After each group emerged from their confab, they shared their top three ideas with the boards. Speaking for his group, Boyd said collaboration could strengthen the high schools by creating “synergies,” which he explained meant that Twin Valley and Leland & Gray would develop complementary specialties, rather than competing specialties. Noting there could be a cost savings from consolidation, Boyd said the money could be invested into additional learning opportunities for students.
Technology was also among the top three for a couple of the groups, and Dale noted that, while WCSU already has a centralized technology program, WSSU’s technology program is handled at the school level.
Boyd also added that professional development, mentoring, and training could be improved; staff and administrative functions could be shared; and that there would be efficiencies in business management.
Long, noting her group found it hard not to focus on the students first, said the group thought there could be shared distance learning through technology benefiting smaller and larger schools. The group also cited the possibilities of collaboration around professional development and curriculum.
“There was some concern about the growth of the supervisory union and some wanted to be left alone,” she noted. “There was a wish to review the hierarchy of the SU.”
But one board member interjected that it wasn’t a negative concern, it was an opportunity to come up with solutions to governance issues.
Dover board member Rich Werner said there could be an opportunity to take some responsibilities away from the superintendent and hand them to school principals, so that the superintendent would be able to run a larger supervisory union.
Long’s group also listed opportunities for increased purchasing power, collective bargaining, and special education. “And both SUs have discussed hiring someone to write grants, but it’s always set aside as too expensive,” Long noted.
WCSU superboard member Martin Nadler, a former WSSU interim superintendent, said his group thought there could be increased access to special programs for students in areas such as enrichment, special education, and advanced placement courses. The group also said there could be savings from shared central office services, purchasing, human resources, and building management.
The group also cited collaboration on professional development for teachers and, Nadler added, for administrators. “Some principals need to learn how to tell bad teachers that they need to look for another career,” he said.
Wardsboro School Board member John Moran, who also represents several WCSU and WSSU towns in the Legislature, spoke for the last group. Like other groups, they also cited savings from sharing administration and services, and purchasing for fuel, transportation, and food service. The group also acknowledged the impact of a merger on the superintendent, and suggested redefining the role. “The superintendent can’t meet with every board, every time they meet,” he said.
After some group discussion, the two superboards voted to form an exploratory committee.
Wrapping up the meeting, Dale consolidated the list into seven general topics, and asked board members to vote for their top three areas of exploration. The topics and their ranking will help a joint supervisory union committee focus their study. No date was set for the committee’s first meeting.