by Phil Dodd
MONTPELIER — On Dec. 7, the Montpelier School Board will appoint three school board members and two community members to a study committee with two representatives from Roxbury to determine whether it makes sense for the two school districts to merge.
If the study committee recommends a merger, it would only take place if approved by voters in both towns, which a recent vote shows is not guaranteed. On election day, voters in Barre Town rejected a proposed merger with Barre. The five towns that feed students to U-32 high school have also been having a contentious discussion about merging their school districts into one. In the past, some have suggested that Montpelier and U-32 should merge, but that possibility is not on the table at the moment.
Meanwhile, Northfield and Williamstown have formed a merger study committee that is said to be nearing a conclusion. But now some Northfield residents think the idea of a merger with Montpelier should also be considered, at least on an informal basis.
The school merger discussions in the area have been prompted by Act 46, a state law designed to encourage small school districts to join forces. The law also gives the state the right, at some point in the future, to require mergers.
Under the law, Montpelier is large enough that is not required to merge with anyone. But Roxbury, a very small district located south of Northfield, asked to talk with Montpelier. Both towns’ school boards voted in October to form an Act 46 study committee, according to Montpelier School Board Chair Michele Braun. If a decision to merge is recommended, Braun said a vote will not take place on Town Meeting Day, but could take place before June 30, when Act 46 property tax incentives for mergers end.
The Northfield-Williamstown merger is tentatively scheduled to go to the voters in those towns on Town Meeting Day, but some Northfield residents are now urging Northfield to also talk to Montpelier about a merger.
Montpelier Superintendent Brian Ricca said that Northfield cannot legally take part in two merger studies at once, but it could be allowed to get involved in the Montpelier-Roxbury talks on an informal basis. A decision on whether Northfield would be allowed to participate in some way will be up to the soon-to-be-formed study committee, not the two schools boards, Ricca noted. The study committee could also reject any overture that comes from Northfield.
Ricca, who will attend study committee meetings, said he is focused on the implications of the possible Roxbury merger and will not examine the Northfield option unless the study committee invites them to join as informal participants.
The three school districts vary widely in size. Montpelier’s current enrollment is 1,042, Ricca said, not including preschool. The Roxbury and Northfield enrollments, including preschool, are 51 and 581 respectively, he said.
The three towns also have different political views. In the recent gubernatorial race, Montpelier voted for Minter over Scott by 3,169 to 1,515. Scott prevailed in Northfield by 1,463 to 718, and in Roxbury by 219 to 149.
Braun said that the Montpelier School Board is soliciting two members of the Montpelier community to join three school board members on the Roxbury study committee. Those interested should send a letter explaining their interest in the topic to the school board by Nov. 28, she said. The address is 5 School Drive, Unit 1, in Montpelier.