Board of Education officials met at Burlington High School with an ambitious agenda-- a vote to dissolve the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union. But like any local control issue involving schools, it sparks emotions.
The Bethel-based Supervisory Union suffers from sagging enrollments, among other problems. The student population from schools in Bethel, Rochester, Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Hancock and Granville total less than 500. On top of that, the imminent retirement of the longtime superintendent has created what state officials see as an opportunity.
A proposal developed over the last year for the Education Agency calls for dividing member schools between three adjacent supervisory unions. The schools in Bethel and Rochester would end up in the Orange Windsor Supervisory Union. Hancock and Granville students would be sent to Washington West. And Pittsfield and Stockbridge schools would go to Windsor Central.
While they agree changes are needed, the superintendents of the four supervisory unions involved told Board members the proposal is not ready for prime time.
"We would like to be part-- I, certainly as our superintendent, would like to be part of that solution, but not at the expense of my six towns that incur significant costs over a long period of time," said Brigid Scheffert, the superintendent of WWSU.
"The real issue here is ... allaying the fears that somehow the school, the culture, the climate, the instructional philosophy that we know is going to be usurped by some monolith over there," said David Bickford, the superintendent of OWSU.
Even the outgoing superintendent has issues.
"Sending the towns in various districts, in my opinion, based on my experience and life on this planet-- is not a god idea," said John Poljacik, the superintendent of WNWSU.
Of particular concern to some is the potential impact on Rochester. The high school there currently takes many students from Hancock and Granville, and school officials say sending those students to Harwood jeopardizes the school's viability.
"It would cause irreparable damage to our small town school, the center of our community, and the opposite of what Governor Shumlin and Secretary Holcombe say about how they value small schools," said Catherine Knight, the principal of Rochester.
State education officials say if approved, the transition would take several years to accomplish and save upward of three-quarters of a million dollars. More importantly, they say it would better allocate the resources available. Despite the pain, incoming Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe says the consolidation and others like it are necessary.
"I think this is a conversation we need to have," Holcombe said. "I think it's a hard conversation. No one wants to have it, but the reality is budgets are tight. When you sit in your district I think we all need to ask ourselves what are the opportunities we're providing children with the scarce dollars and is this really the best way to do that?"
Then it came time for the vote. Board members voted to hold off on taking action until June. In the meantime, superintendents from the effected supervisory unions will attempt to hammer out what many say will be a difficult decision, regardless of the outcome.