The meeting was led by Steve Sanborn, the Act 46 consultant who has been assisting Twin Valley in forming its articles of agreement for merger. Sanborn explained that Wilmington and Whitingham have already done a lot of the consolidation work that Act 46 aims to achieve, including finding areas where opportunities for students may be enhanced. “You’ve already done a whole lot of the things that unification talks about,” said Sanborn.
The biggest change for Twin Valley, explained Sanborn, would be creating a single school board and simplifying tax differences between the towns. “Streamlining means one school board for the two towns, one school budget, and one tax rate,” said Sanborn. “And that tax rate is only adjusted by your CLA in each community.”
Twin Valley School Board Chair Seth Boyd said the merger, which is being proposed in order for the district to comply with Act 46, isn’t going to result in any change for Twin Valley students.
“Since we created Twin Valley, this has always been part of the discussion,” said Boyd. “Someday we would become a unified school district. Joint contracts are a little clunky in the state. We are not recognized as a school district by the state. Whitingham is and Wilmington is, but Twin Valley isn’t. Obviously there is legislation in front of us that says you need to do it now. But I don’t think it’s a substantial change for Twin Valley.”
Other than complying with the law, attendees of the meeting were hard pressed to find a way that the merger would benefit them or their children, and the discussion turned more than once to concerns about a lack of programming and opportunity for Twin Valley students.
Patrice Schneider said she is concerned that the school has no language programs, and about a rumor she heard that “some English” programming may be cut.
“What is ‘some English’?” asked Schneider. “All the Shakespeare has to go and the rest can stay?”
Stephanie Pardy said that although she graduated from Twin Valley and she wants to keep her daughter at the school, her ex-husband lives in Brattleboro, and she wonders if she should send her daughter there. Pardy said her ex pays less in taxes for a greater level of programming opportunity.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, who was in attendance at the meeting, explained that because of how per-pupil financing works at the state level, small schools like Twin Valley have less to work with.
“Money is equalized across the state,” said Sibilia. “We have a constitution that says we have to provide equitable opportunity for kids. All of the (state’s) policies try to push at spending equal dollars per pupil across the state. So you get economies of scale in a larger school. What you’re able to do there is purchase more opportunities. It’s not equitable. So you end up with a situation, which we have in the state, where we have really significant inequities. Right now you win if you have more students. You’re able to get more resources, and therefore provide more opportunities for your students and reduce the inequities among students.”
Sibilia said that reducing inequities by making larger pools of students is the goal of Act 46. “Not for you,” said Sibilia. “Because you’ve already done it. You guys are unique. And you have other challenges besides this. (This proposed merger) is the easiest thing.”
Pardy asked the board whether merging more towns, such as Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford, into Twin Valley was an option. “If we had more students, we would have more opportunity,” said Pardy.
The board said that for Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford, joining Twin Valley, which operates a K-12 district, would mean giving up school choice after eighth grade, which would be a tough sell. Moreover, as board member John Doty explained, school mergers aren’t always fiscally sensible.
“I was a principal at Windham Elementary,” said Doty. “When our enrollment dropped from 50 to 25, we asked, wouldn’t it be cheaper to close our schools? Come to find, no, it wasn’t, because you had transportation plus tuition costs. We looked again when we got down to 15 students. Same story. That’s a very geographically isolated place but that’s an answer to why there’s no easy solution.”
Sanborn said that Wilmington and Whitingham are also challenged with isolation.
“You folks are living in a difficult place. It’s beautiful and great, but there is isolation,” said Sanborn. “You are isolated. I wouldn’t want to send my child to Brattleboro every day. Just in the time I’ve been here the road between here and Brattleboro has been closed twice. I live in the Northeast Kingdom in the far corner of the state, and I see more isolation here than I do in the Northeast Kingdom. I think that’s an important thing that the state look at. They look at a map and the map is flat. They’ve got to understand that it’s not flat here. It’s really challenging.”