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Whiting, Sudbury weigh next step after school merger fails

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December 3, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

WHITING/SUDBURY — Since voters in Whiting rejected the proposal to create a joint school district with Sudbury last month, the two school boards, still keen on the idea, have been wrestling with what to do next.

One thing they know for sure, they will take a break from each other and meet separately this month.

“We agreed to get together in January, to reassess where we want to go from here,” said Sudbury school board Chair Steve Roberts. “We didn’t want to have any kind of knee jerk reaction to the vote, so we decided to cool it for a bit.”

The merger proposal was defeated on Nov. 6 in a split decision, with Sudbury approving the plan, 53-39, and Whiting rejecting it, 47-26. Both towns had to approve the merger for it to pass.

The two boards, which have held their meetings together for more than a year, will spend this month’s meetings working on their individual spending plans for the coming academic year. They will convene again in January.

Whether or not they decide to resurrect the merger proposal is unclear, though Sudbury’s board has already begun to explore other options.

“There are very few alternatives,” Roberts said. Sudbury could close its school and tuition children either to Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon or to Whiting. The board has considered the possibility of creating a cross-tuitioning plan, in which an equal number of Whiting and Sudbury students would be tuitioned out to the other school.

“But that would be a political nightmare,” Roberts said.

Earlier in the planning process, Leicester Central School officials had voiced an interest in joining in a three-way merger with Whiting and Sudbury, but Roberts said the driving distance between Leicester and Sudbury was a real concern.

“We’re back to the drawing board,” he said.

Whiting isn’t facing quite as much urgency.

While Sudbury’s enrollment — now at 31 — has been steadily declining over the last few years, Whiting’s has actually been rising, said school board member Carol Brigham.

Enrollment was at its lowest, with 17 students, six or seven years ago. That’s when the board began discussing a possible merger with Sudbury. But this year, Whiting Elementary has 36 students.

The Whiting board members were in agreement a merger would benefit those students, even as their numbers crept up, Brigham said. For her, the real advantage of the merger would have been giving the students a chance to learn from a variety of teachers.

“In my eyes, this would have benefited my kids,” she said.  “We have kids at the school now who have had the same teacher for four years. That might be fine if it’s the best teacher in the world. But in today’s world, the more teachers your kid has, the more styles of teaching, the stronger a learner they’ll be.”

The town didn’t share that opinion.

“I don’t think people in Whiting were convinced that it would save them enough money, compared to what the school would gain,” she said.

In hindsight, both school boards stressed they hadn’t done enough to convince the voters the merger would be both beneficial to the students and, in the long run, less costly to the taxpayer. A reduction in staff could have meant cutting the school budget in each town by $1,500 per pupil, according to the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.

The boards also regretted the ill will that cropped up between the towns when a Sudbury resident started spreading rumors about the Whiting school right before the vote.

“We probably should have sent a contingent (to Whiting) to clear that up,” Roberts said.

He hopes when the boards meet again in January, some of the tension will have dissipated. But will the boards revisit the possibility of a merger?

“I just don’t see it happening,” he said.

A DIFFERENT MERGER

Two other Addison County towns facing dwindling school enrollment — Hancock and Granville — formed a joint school district in 2004.

“We knew costs would continue to rise and we felt we were stronger as a unit than individually,” said Hancock school board Chair Jill Jesso-White. “By joining we would be able to continue offering elementary education in town.”

But over the next few years enrollment continued to drop and education costs continued to rise. And since the two towns were splitting expenses based on enrollment — 25 of the school’s 37 students were from Hancock — the tax burden lay more heavily on Hancock.

On Town Meeting Day last March, Hancock voters rejected the school’s proposed budget, which represented a 16.5 percent increase in spending. With the budget already pared down to bare necessities, those results meant the school would have to close.

Facing that reality, voters from both towns started the petition process for a revote. They evened out the way expenses were divided between the two towns — Granville would pay a little more, Hancock a little less — and raise funds to cover extra expenses.

At the revote last summer both towns voted to keep the Hancock and Granville Village Schools open.

“We thought, we’ll just make it through this year,” Jesso-White said. But now, putting together a spending plan for next year, the board members are facing the same problem. Enrollment has dropped to 31, and the majority of those students are fifth- and sixth-graders, meaning there isn’t a strong feeder group coming up through the grades.

“This right now is about schools,” Jesso-White said. But rural towns are having trouble keeping many community services up and running.

“We’ve been having trouble finding volunteers for fire departments. We have a very tiny library and we’re wondering if we should consolidate with the Rochester library so we can have a better one.

“As long as young people keep leaving Vermont and we aren’t having more families and businesses coming in, many things will need to consolidate for their existence.”

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