by Phil Dodd
The Washington Central Supervisory Union (U-32) merger committee may have hit a roadblock, but an Act 46 merger between neighboring Montpelier and the southern Washington County town of Roxbury is still under discussion, and could result in a public vote in May or June. A majority of voters in each school district would have to approve the idea for it to take effect, starting in the 2018–2019 school year.
First, however, the Montpelier-Roxbury merger study committee has to agree that the concept is worth putting before voters. A public hearing was held in Roxbury Monday, March 13, but a hearing in Montpelier scheduled for March 15 was postponed due to the snowstorm. It has tentatively been rescheduled for Tuesday, March 21 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Montpelier High School cafeteria.
After taking into account public commetns and other information, the merger committee may vote on the question by the end of March, according to Montpelier School Commissioner Tina Muncy, who is also on the merger study committee.
“We want to hear what both communities think about this idea,” Muncy said. “Then the merger committee will have to decide if the proposed merger is something we want to take to the voters.”
The merger committee has been working through merger-related topics and preparing an agreement that could be used as the basis for a merger. Time is an issue, though, as any move to merge has to be approved by the merger committee, the Agency of Education and the state Education Board before it can go to a public vote. That vote must happen before June 30 in order for the two districts to receive any Act 46 property tax incentives.
Roxbury appears to be the more enthusiastic partner at this point. Currently part of the Washington South Supervisory Union with Northfield, the tiny rural school district of Roxbury — located just south of Northfield — would face much higher property taxes and the possibility of losing its school if the Montpelier merger does not go through. With a merger, it would at least initially be able to keep a K-4 school open. Some realtors also think property values in Roxbury could get a boost if it merges with Montpelier’s school district.
For Montpelier, the savings from Act 46 property tax incentives, which only last a few years, might be offset in the early years by the costs that would be incurred paying for the school tuition of Roxbury students who currently attend other school districts for middle and high school, and who would be allowed to continue at those other schools for the next several years.
Eventually, however, all Roxbury students would come to Montpelier’s middle and high schools, where there is currently ample capacity. Their eventual attendance at these schools should bring more education funds to the combined district.
Merging now would also prevent the state from using Act 46 to force Montpelier and Roxbury to merge with other districts in the future. Still, a separate state law could theoretically allow the state to force a new Montpelier-Roxbury district into a supervisory union with another neighboring district, a state official told Muncy and others.
Some critics have argued it would make more sense for Roxbury to merge with its neighbor Northfield, instead of Montpelier 17 miles away, and that, if Montpelier considers merging with anyone, it should be U-32. But school boards in both Montpelier and Roxbury decided a merger was an idea worth considering and voted to form the merger study committee last year.
With Act 46 deadlines looming, a merger committee decision on whether to hold public votes will likely occur soon. The committee has meetings scheduled for March 21 in Montpelier and March 30 in Roxbury.
Meanwhile, Northfield and Williamstown are planning to vote May 2 on whether to merge their school districts. And in a re-vote held on Jan. 31, Barre Town again rejected a proposed school merger with Barre, this time by a two-to-one margin. Last November, Barre had approved the idea by a three-to-one margin, but a Barre-Barre Town merger appears dead for now.