A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Merger…

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So…. funny story. After spending all summer going to terribly exciting meetings where about one-tenth of a decision got made, the Act 46 Merger Committee finally made a big decision. Really big. And then- like that!- they voted to dissolve.

Wait, what?

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Sept. 29 Meeting Pawlet & Rupert School Boards

To recap, here is a quick summary of what happened over the course of the last month:

  • Sept. 1st, The Merger Committee holds a long, well-attended public forum at the Mettawee Community School on the question of Choice versus Designation. Lots of public comment, including from kids, much of it very emotional and intense. The committee was planning to vote this night on Choice vs. Designation, but, truthfully, they all look a little bit freaked out. They put it off to the following week.
  • Sept. 7th, The Merger Committee holds another long, well-attended meeting, this time at the Wells Village School, which, kind of by accident, turns into another extended session of public comment. When at last the committee votes, they fail to pass a measure endorsing choice. The committee talks some. Then, the committee fails to pass a measure endorsing designation. More talking. Finally a third vote is taken and by the slimmest of possible margins, choice passes. At last! A decision has been made!
  • Sept. 19th, The Merger Committee implodes. I wasn’t in attendance for this meeting, but apparently the representatives who had voted against choice felt that this was not a measure, which would ever, in a million, billion years, be passed by the voters. Consequently, they take a vote not to recommend the merger of Wells, Pawlet and Rupert, and then formally vote to dissolve the committee.

Well! If that wasn’t an excellent way to spend a summer— not to mention up to $20,000 of tax payer grant money—I don’t know what is.

But enough about the past. What happens now? On Sept 29th, the Pawlet and Rupert School Boards held a special meeting, and here is the decision they made: once and for all they are going to find out what the voters think on the issue of Choice versus Designation. Clearly, there has not been enough comment to date. Forget the agonizingly emotional public forum of Sept 1st. Forget the four-hour Bataan Death March of a meeting on Sept 7th. Forget all those dozens of emails and scores of letters and hours-upon-hours of public comment. Forget the fact that Merger committee chair Sue Ceglowski stated at the Sept 7th meeting that the committee had definitively heard many more comments supporting choice.

No- now the school boards would really like to know what the community thinks. Like, for real. Therefore, there will be a special ballot vote on Election Day (November 8th) to determine the will of the voters on this issue. Although the vote is “non-binding,” the boards voted to recommend that any outcome be followed by any future merger committee.

Here is how they worded the article to be voted upon, which is not leading, really, very much at all:

“Shall the voters of (Pawlet/ Rupert) advise the (Pawlet/ Rupert) School Board to continue the designation of New York public high schools as the District’s public high school, and limit the amount of tuition monies paid to non-designated schools to the amount paid to the NY designated schools, as part of any school district merger under Act 46?”

Translation: If you would like things to remain exactly as they are- which under the new law they cannot– then vote Yes! Then the state can tell us who to merge with! (Oo- maybe they’ll pick Manchester and Dorset. Then we can have their property tax rate- hooray!!)

On the other hand, if you want area children to have access to New York high schools Salem and Granville as well as other area schools, for no more than the cost of the Vermont state average- then vote No!

So you see, it’s all perfectly clear. But just in case it’s not, there will be two informational meetings about this special ballot item: one at the Rupert firehouse on Nov. 1 at 7PM, and one in Pawlet, at the Mettawee Community School on Nov. 3 at 7:30.

About time too. I haven’t been to a good four-hour meeting in days.

“A Sweet Deal” vs “The Right Thing to Do”

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A lot of things happened at the Pawlet-Rupert-Wells merger public forum last Thursday night, but one thing I especially noticed was the way that certain phrases got picked up and reused by commenters on both sides of the school choice versus designation debate.

Three different commenters called the existing system— which designation would seek to replicate under the new Act 46 merger scenario— “a sweet deal.” This gave me pause. What’s so sweet about it? you might ask.

In a nutshell: when we send our kids to middle and high school in Granville and Salem, New York, we are getting a bargain price. Everyone agrees on this. We can educate our kids for roughly $8,000 per student tuition, even though in Vermont the state average clocks in at well above that amount: over $14,000.

So great!- right? But wait… why is New York State’s high school tuition so much lower than Vermont’s? Have they figured out something we don’t know? When I looked it up, I found something fascinating: New York State doesn’t spend less on education. In fact, contrary to what was said at the public forum, Vermont does not spend more on per student education than any other state in the nation. New York does.

I found a Washington Post article which lists the top five highest education spenders per student… Vermont isn’t one of them. But New York is. In fact, as of 2015, New York is the top spender of all.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/06/02/the-states-that-spend-the-most-and-the-least-on-education-in-one-map/ 

I found lots of information online, varying by year, but all of it pointed to the same thing: New York pays more than any other state:

screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-10-07-40-am

(Graphic source:http://www.governing.com/topics/education/gov-education-funding-states.html#data )

What gives? How can Granville and Salem secondary tuition be so low, when the state average for New York is so high? According to the most recent information I could find, actual Granville tuition per student is: $24,241. Salem is: $23,237.

links- http://www.syracuse.com/schools/index.ssf/2015/05/spending_per_student_nys_school_districts_2015_lookup_compare_any_district_rank.html

http://b5.caspio.com/dp.asp?AppKey=3908300013b754e71e5842a2a35e

Not $8,000.

So when we send our children to New York high schools, who is making up that $15,000 or $16,000 difference? New York State taxpayers, that’s who. As committee advisor Dan French explained to the merger committee at a recent meeting, New York provides “greater support” for education from a state level.

Is it ethical, I wonder, to combat rising education costs by sending our kids to a state that seems to have a worse problem with escalating tuition than we do? And asking them to pay for it?

Even if you the kind of person to say “ethics-schmethics,” consider this: there’s another, more practical concern here, which is the possibility that New York State residents will awake from their slumber to realize that we’ve been riding on the back of their education system courtesy a big fat loophole. And they could raise tuition. We have no guarantee that they won’t. Here’s a thought: what if they charged us what it really costs? By comparison with $23,000- $24,000 tuition, School Choice per pupil tuition waver of $14,000 starts looking downright frugal.

Which brings me to the other phrase I heard more than once from commenters at the meeting. In the absence of having our own secondary school, they said, School Choice is simply “the right thing to do.” As in, “Yes, rising taxes are hard, but we’re a community. We should all pull together and give our children choice in education because it’s the right thing to do.”

So ask yourself: down the line, what would you want to be in a position to tell our community’s children? That we based their education on “a sweet deal” with no long-term guarantees… or on “the right thing to do”?

No matter which side of the debate you find yourself on, I highly encourage you to show up tomorrow night for the merger committee’s vote, Wed. Sept 7th, 7PM at the Wells School.

Op-Ed on Choice vs. Designation

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Perhaps you’ve heard: the biggest news last Thursday night after the much-anticipated Pawlet-Rupert-Wells merger forum was that no decision was made on the pivotal question of school choice versus designation. It was a well-attended, long, and emotional meeting. The Rutland Herald’s article on the meeting was entitled “Passion, But No School Choice Decision in Pawlet.”

The committee decided to hold off and vote at the next meeting: Wed., Sept. 7th at the Wells School at 7PM. I highly encourage everyone who cares about this issue to attend this meeting.

After the meeting was over, I wrote this Op-Ed piece for the Rutland Herald which appeared on Saturday- click on the link below to check it out.

http://rutlandherald.com/article/20160903/OPINION04/160909882Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 11.01.45 AM

The Good Part: Merger Consideration Heats Up

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“Designation or choice is your pivotal issue right now”

-Dan French

Advisor to the Merger Committee

I know what you’ve been thinking. You’ve been thinking: sure, things are happening with the Pawlet/Rupert/Wells School Merger Committee… but I really can’t get involved until something big is about to happen.

Well, friends, something big is about to happen. After a very, very long meeting last Monday (8/22/16) the Merger Committee decided to speed things up. The upshot is that there will be only one public forum on the merger. This is a change from previous plans, so to be clear, this is your one chance to have your voice heard on the proposed Pawlet/Rupert/Wells School merger— and specifically on the pivotal issue of School Choice versus Designation— and that will be at the meeting next Thursday, September 1st at 6:30PM at the Mettawee Community School. So tell your friends, share this post, do whatever it takes to get the word out.

Merger Committee Meeting, Rupert Firehouse, 8/22/16

Merger Committee Meeting, Rupert Firehouse, 8/22/16

Committee Advisor Dan French is planning a ten-minute power-point presentation to bring the public up to speed on the whole process that the committee has been engaged in this past summer and where we might go from here. French has consistently maintained that School Choice versus Designation is the key issue for this merger. (See below for a description of this issue.) He will have specific numbers to illustrate estimated cost differences between School Choice and Designation.

(Spoiler alert: under the current scenario the difference is about ten cents. For example: if the property tax rate were $1.36 under Designation, then we can estimate it will be about $1.46 under School Choice. Dan French notes that taxes go up under either scenario. And yes, the property tax rate would be the same for all three towns.)

After the Question and Comment period is over (which they estimate will be at 8:30PM) DON’T LEAVE! Why? Because the committee plans to vote right then and there which way they intend to go on the School Choice versus Designation issue. Yes! It’s a public meeting so stay and watch the fun!

Some key points to be aware of:

  • Logistics: this evening the Mettawee Back-to-School Picnic will also be going on, so arrive early for a good parking spot.
  • Important for parents: Child-care will be provided in the library from 6:30 to 8:30.
  • Which way is the committee leaning? It’s hard to say, however at the last meeting the representatives from Wells clearly indicated that they are in favor of School Choice. If the merger committee fails to vote for School Choice on Sept. 1, the Wells representatives have expressed interest in dissolving the committee so that they may pursue the possibility of merging with Middletown Springs.(Middletown Springs is holding a forum to explore merger possibilities on Sept. 8th.)
  • Can we include Middletown Springs in our merger? If the committee chooses School Choice, it is possible that Middletown Springs could be invited into the merger as well, by a simple vote of the committee.
  • Can’t things just stay the same?: Although Rupert, Pawlet and also many Wells children have historically gone to Salem and Granville for public high school, under the current law, Act 46, there is no option to designate schools outside of Vermont. During the last merger meeting, RSWSU Superintendent Joan Paustian explained “right now that (ability) does not exist.”

School Choice versus Designation: What Does it Mean?

Because neither Pawlet, Rupert nor Wells has a high school of its own, the merger committee must make a decision whether or not to “designate” a high school or high schools. If so, between one and three high schools may be “designated.” in this scenario, if a high school student chooses instead to go to a non-designated school, he or she gets a voucher for the lowest tuition amount of the available designated options.

If, on the other hand, no school is “designated” each student receives a voucher for the state average announced tuition for Vermont high schools. For example, the average announced tuition of Union 7th-12th grade schools in Vermont in 2016 was $14,297.

And Then What Happened? School Merger Consideration Continues

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IMG_3632As consideration of the Pawlet/Rupert/Wells school merger continues, the committee, under the direction of advisor Dan French, has met again (7/29/16, Mettawee Community School).

Not all that much happened.

But! One key thing did (drumroll please…?)

A decision was made as to the proposed new school board. The committee agreed unanimously that the new school board will have nine-members, proportionally representing the three towns. Therefore, the new school board will look like this:

  • Pawlet: 4 members
  • Rupert: 2 members
  • Wells: 3 members 

That’s it! I just saved you an hour and a half meeting, so, you’re welcome.

The next meeting will take place August 8th at 6:30 pm at the Wells School. At that meeting they expect to start to look at some financial projections, for both designated and non-designated high school scenarios. They will also discuss a draft of a newsletter to be sent out from the committee.

Side note: If you do decide to come to a meeting, please be aware that currently the committee is only taking a total of ten minutes of public comments at the beginning of each meeting. They will also accept written comments. Currently they are not responding to comments or answering questions; members of the community may sit in on the meetings but may not yet participate in the discussions. The time for questions and commentary will be when the committee has its public hearing for a more fully-fleshed out merger proposal. They are currently projecting the public hearing will be in late August or early November. So, stay-tuned.

Merger Committee Members who were at the meeting on 7/29/16:

Sue Ceglowski, Susan Hostley, John Malcolm, Courtney Bishop, Diane Mach, Rico Balzano, Arlene Bentley and William Meyer.

So, What’s Up with the School Merger?

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School Merger Committee meeting, 7/13/16

If you’ve heard of Act 46, then you know the state of Vermont is requiring school districts to merge into larger units. Everyone agrees it’s complicated, but you can read an excellent plain-English summary of the law here: http://vtdigger.org/2015/11/10/decoding-act-46-what-it-means-how-it-works/

To this end, the town of Pawlet, along with neighboring Rupert and Wells are conducting a merger study right now. Are you wondering what’s happening with the Pawlet/Rupert/Wells Merger Study? I was. Some friends mentioned there was a meeting the other night, (7/13/16) so I went. The meeting lasted about two hours, but lucky for you! I have condensed it all for you here. This, in a nutshell, is what I found out:

-The committee has hired former BRSU Superintendent Dan French as an advisor.

Currently the committee is in the “study” phase. Their job is to determine if a merger is desirable. If not, they will disband and the process begins again with a different committee, merger proposal and study.

-If this merger is found desirable by the committee, they will compile a report arguing to that effect and present it to the public.

There will be a public hearing, in late August or early September at which both written and verbal testimony will be taken from the public.

The goal is to have the merger proposal complete in November.

-If accepted by the state board in December, the plan then goes to the voters. Ideally, this vote would take place by March, 2017. In order to be accepted, all three towns have to vote in favor of it.

-In order to achieve certain tax incentives, the deadline for a merger to be accepted is one year from now: July 2017.

-According to advisor French, the three key merger issues are:

  1. The size/ composition of the new school board
  2. The assets versus the liabilities of such a new set-up
  3. Designation versus choice- ie: will the high school be designated or not?

-Members of the committee include: Sue Ceglowski, Arlene Bentley, Sue Hostley, John Malcolm, Diane Mach, William Meyer, Sue Burke, Rico Balzano, Courtney Bishop

As you can see, the timeline is key, and has many pieces. So, just to recap, here is what the committee is shooting for:

  •             July/August: Merger Committee Study Phase
  •             August/September: Public Hearing
  •             November: Merger Study complete and submitted to state
  •             March 2017, or before: Merger Proposal Vote

Don’t believe me? Think I have gotten all the facts horribly wrong? Come to one of the next meetings, and decide for yourself! Here is the current schedule:

  • Thursday July 28                  6:30-8:30pm             Mettawee School
  • Monday August 8                  7pm                            TBA
  • Monday August 22               3:30-8:30pm            Wells Village School
  • Thursday September 1        6:30-8:30pm             Mettawee School

School merger summary number 1

Friends of Haystack

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PAWLET, Vermont – April 2012.  With its distinctly-shaped summit and rare habitats, Haystack Mountain is a treasured landmark for residents of Pawlet and neighboring towns.  Community leaders and residents have formed a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization called Friends of Haystack  with the goal of conserving a 65.56 acre parcel of land that includes the summit.

Beyond its scenic beauty, Haystack is a wonderful recreational resource for the local community and vacationing visitors alike; however, public access has been restricted in the past.  The Friends of Haystack will maintain the summit trail for the enjoyment of community hikers and visitors.

“The opportunity to preserve the top of Haystack forever is an exciting and rare opportunity for the residents of Pawlet and Wells and other fans of this amazing mountain.   The mix of acres conserved by a big national group like the Nature Conservancy, the in-state Vermont Land Trust, and now our own local community group is an ideal way to build collaborations. With the summit finally conserved, permanent public access to the peak will be secured for coming generations.  We think everyone will be excited to participate in this wonderful project,” says Susan Sargent, Friends of Haystack President.

For more information please visit: http://www.friendsofhaystack.org or on facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfHaystack