by Phil Dodd
MONTPELIER/ROXBURY — It’s a combination few could have envisioned just a couple of years ago, but the school systems of the city of Montpelier and the tiny rural town of Roxbury — 17 miles and two school districts away — will be joining forces in a unified school district if voters in both towns approve the merger in a June 20 special election, an election that was unanimously OK’d by the State Board of Education on May 16.
When Montpelier residents first hear about the idea, the first question often asked is why Roxbury is not merging with Northfield instead of Montpelier, since Roxbury is currently in a supervisory union with neighboring Northfield and the Northfield Middle/High School is much closer to Roxbury. Northfield voted May 2 to merge with Williamstown and to form a supervisory union with Orange and Washington.
At one point, Roxbury hoped to join that supervisory union, too, but the law prevents districts with different grade structures from joining together in supervisory unions, according to Jon Guiffre, chair of both the Roxbury school board and the Montpelier-Roxbury merger committee. Roxbury later weighed merging directly with Northfield, but the Roxbury school board, with significant community input, ultimately decided Montpelier was a better fit both educationally and culturally, he said. There was also some fear that with a Northfield merger the Roxbury Elementary school would be closed.
The Montpelier school board was open to exploring a merger, and last fall the Montpelier and Roxbury school districts formed a special seven-person Act 46 merger study committee, the majority of which in late April approved sending a merger plan to the voters on June 20. The vote among the Montpelier members was 3 to 2 in favor of the plan, while both Roxbury members voted yes. The official vote was 4 to 2, however, since Roxbury members only had half a vote each, to account for population differences.
A formal 23-page report of the merger committee was sent May 4 to the State Board of Education, which must approve mergers. The report did not mention the split vote or include any comments from the dissenters, but consultant Steve Dale, paid by the state to staff the merger committee, said there was no necessity to share the dissenting views in the report.
If the plan gets voter approval, the Roxbury school district will experience major changes beginning in the 2018–2019 school year. The Roxbury Village School, which currently serves 52 pre-K through sixth grade students, will become a pre-K through fourth grade school, and Roxbury students from fifth grade on will be sent by bus to Montpelier.
At a public hearing this spring, one committee member said it would take a school bus about half an hour to travel between the communities, plus the additional time it would take for a bus to circulate through Roxbury on the expanded bus route the merger agreement envisions. A few students could be on the bus for up to an hour, it was estimated.
There might eventually be separate buses for middle and high school students from Roxbury, with a late return bus for those staying after school for sports or other activities, according to Guiffre. Roxbury is currently a “school choice district,” so students now in seventh grade or above are driven or carpool to their schools, with most going to U-32.
Under the agreement with Montpelier, Roxbury students who are in seventh grade or above this year will be “grandfathered” so they can continue to attend the school of their choice until they graduate, which will cost the new unified district $1.25 million spread over four years, an amount that is more than offset by Act 46 tax incentives.
While Roxbury families enjoy school choice, Guiffre said tuitioning is very expensive and that fact, coupled with the state’s plan to reduce state aid for small districts and districts with declining student numbers, makes Roxbury’s future as a stand-alone district bleak. Without a merger with someone, Roxbury’s tax rates would be “catastrophic” and the district might have to close its school, Guiffre said.
In a merger with Montpelier, however, Roxbury residents would see significant property tax savings. According to merger-committee projections, five years from now the owner of a $200,000 house in Roxbury would get a $960 reduction in annual school property taxes under the merger.
The owner of a $200,000 home in Montpelier would, in five years, save just $40 per year with the merger. But annual savings for such a Montpelier owner would be a bit more than double that, on average, in earlier years due to Act 46 property tax incentives, which expire after four years.
For Montpelier, the benefit of a merger most often cited by merger supporters is that it will bring more students into the schools, and thus more money from the state Education Fund. Steve Hingtgen, one of the Montpelier committee members who favors the merger, said that “by far the most powerful reason to support this unification is because Montpelier will add 80 students to our enrollment,” with 40 or 50 of them eventually coming to Montpelier buildings. Montpelier has excess capacity in its middle and high schools and arguably in our classes, he said.
“Adding this many children to a school district is a dream come true for Vermont schools,” Hingtgen said. “Did you know that Montpelier is currently working hard to recruit a handful of students from Asia to help stabilize our tax rate? If this unification goes into effect, we will increase our size by dozens of students from just 30 minutes away rather than halfway around the world.”
Montpelier committee member Nancy Reid, who voted against sending the merger plan to voters, sees the numbers differently. Based on projections of class sizes, she thinks the problem of small class sizes in Montpelier High School may be a short-term problem as larger numbers of students flow in from lower grades. In the school year 2019–2020, 41 students might be added to the high school from increased student population in Montpelier itself, she said, while only three students would be added from Roxbury that year, with the merger.
“All additional students are an advantage for Montpelier in the short term, but these three additional Roxbury students come with a hefty price tag — given the cost of staffing and maintaining the Roxbury elementary school, paying for services previously covered by the Washington South Supervisory Union, transporting Roxbury students to and from school and after-school activities and paying tuition to grandfather Roxbury students to other area high schools,” Reid said.
Montpelier committee member Jim Murphy, in contrast, believes “the merger with Roxbury provides a sure fire way for Montpelier to increase and stabilize enrollment to ensure that robust budgets can be put forth in future years without heavy tax burdens.”
Murphy also noted: “Roxbury is a more rural community with a different socio-economic mix that shares a strong commitment to education. This is a chance to embrace the diversity Montpelierites value.” Roxbury has a much smaller population, covers four times as much area, still has some working farms, and the percentage of low-income students in the Roxbury Village School (57.1 percent) is more than double the number in Union School (25.6 percent).
One other reason cited by supporters for backing the merger has recently disappeared. When Act 46 was being discussed, and even after it was passed, most observers thought Montpelier was exempt from any requirement to merge, Dale said. But the Agency of Education later ruled that Montpelier and other large single-board districts were not exempt.
However, Act 46 also says that districts that voluntarily merge under the law cannot be forced by the state to take part in additional mergers. Therefore, one reason cited for supporting the Roxbury merger was that it might inoculate Montpelier from any further state-mandated mergers.
But this year the legislature has amended Act 46 in a bill that, among other things, explicitly states that districts like Montpelier with more than 900 students are exempt. So, assuming the governor signs the bill, Montpelier will be under no obligation to merge, voluntarily or as part of a state-mandated plan. The bill also allocates an extra $150,000 in transition funds to merging districts, Guiffre noted.
Act 46 is a law that seeks to combine school districts in order to save money and offer more opportunities to students. It was passed partly in response to the declining school population in Vermont in recent years, which has been accompanied by rising school property taxes. Montpelier’s school population declined for a time, but the city’s student numbers are now rising as larger classes enter Union Elementary School.
Prospects for the Montpelier-Roxbury merger have had their ups and downs over the past few months as Montpelier members wrestled with the issue. At one time, it appeared that a vote on the merger was unlikely to occur any time soon. At a March 30 meeting, for example, current merger proponent Steve Hingtgen said the merger should not go on the ballot this spring because it would not pass, but he later changed his mind after becoming more confident in financial projections. Other Montpelier members also expressed reservations at that meeting.
The prior week, on March 21, Montpelier school business manager Grant Geisler had said at a public hearing, in response to a question from the audience, that if he were a Montpelier taxpayer he would vote against the merger, in part because he said he did not trust some of the assumptions about future staffing at the Roxbury school.
Geisler said this week that he “kind of stepped in it” when he made those comments, implying he should not have answered the question. Asked about his current stance, he said he would defer to the committee, which he noted had made refinements to the original financial projections that he helped prepare and that these projections now show a small tax benefit for Montpelier after five years, rather than a small loss.
Merger committee member Paul Carnahan, who backs the merger, said he was uncertain himself how he would vote in the end. Among his concerns was the possibility of student numbers at the Roxbury elementary school declining in the future. Closing the school and requiring the youngest students to take a bus to Montpelier could be a difficult step, he said, but he ultimately decided that the decision could be left to a future school board, if it ever becomes necessary.
Carnahan says he supports the merger because bringing more students into Montpelier schools gives Montpelier “a fighting chance of keeping our taxes stable.” He elaborated: “If there is an expenditure problem, we the voters and the school board can work together to cut back. Expenditures are totally within our control; student population is not. So I think we ought to boost our enrollment now so that we can weather a storm in the future.”
Merger committee member Tina Muncy, who at one time thought the merger question should be left to the voters, eventually voted against that course. “I voted no because, although there is not a significant disadvantage to Montpelier, I did not find there was a significant advantage,” she said. “I do not find it compelling from Montpelier’s perspective educationally and I am concerned that there could be some future risk financially.”
She added: “Over the years, we would add one or some years two children to each classroom in some grades in the middle and high schools. Would this make a significant difference in the education of Montpelier students?”
In any case, a public vote is set to occur. The chances of Roxbury voters approving the merger seem relatively high, though Guiffre said there are Roxbury parents unhappy with the prospect. The outcome in Montpelier appears more uncertain, if only because not many residents have been fully engaged in the debate to this point.
What will Roxbury do if the merger vote fails? “We would scramble to see if Northfield or Randolph would take us,” Guiffre said. “We want to be able to educate our youngest students in town.”
But Guiffre and merger committee members will be doing everything they can to convince the public in both towns to vote in the affirmative. Guiffre said members will be speaking to business groups, handing out information at the Montpelier Farmers market, discussing the merger on ORCA, talking to students, teachers and parents, submitting Op-Ed pieces to newspapers and promoting the merger with a website, Facebook page and posting on Front Porch Forum.
The committee members who favor a merger will also hold public meetings at the Roxbury Village School at 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on June 5, and at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Montpelier High School on June 6. Dissenters Muncy and Reid do not plan on attending the meetings.
Montpelier ballots could be available for early voting as soon as May 29, according to Cty Clerk John Odum. The ballot itself will include three other questions beside the merger. The other articles involve electing a school board for the new district, modifying the city policy for granting tax stabilization agreements to businesses to cover personal as well as real property, and asking whether dogs should be leashed in Hubbard Park. Odum said the latter article could significantly increase voter participation.
Voters Will Also Choose New Unified School Board
At the same time that Montpelier and Roxbury voters will be deciding whether or not to merge their school districts, they will be asked to vote for a new school board made up of seven Montpelier members and two Roxbury members, who would serve only if the merger is approved.
Because of the population imbalance between the two communities, Montpelier would get more school board members and they would have two votes each, while Roxbury members would get one vote each.
If the merger passes, the existing Montpelier and Roxbury school boards would still exist during a transition year, along with the new unified board, but would then be disbanded.
Any Montpelier resident interested in running for the new school board must submit by May 21 a petition, with 30 signatures, indicating whether they are running for a one, two or three-year term, according to City Clerk John Odum. Since that day is a Sunday, petitions submitted on May 21 should be put in the drop box at the back of city hall, he said.
Residents To Discuss Potential Merger of Montpelier and U-32
Montpelier resident Heidi Tringe, who favors a merger of the Montpelier schools with the Washington Central Supervisory Union that operates U-32 and has said that a Montpelier-Roxbury merger does not make geographic sense, is organizing a meeting to discuss a potential Montpelier-U-32 merger on Monday, May 22 at 7 p.m. at the Montpelier High School.
The meeting, open to the public, will be a “gathering for people interested in pursuing a potential merger,” she said. Tringe hopes to develop a “groundswell of public support for moving forward.”
Tringe has been circulating a petition in favor of a merger of Montpelier and U-32 that has been signed by over 150 residents of Montpelier and the U-32 towns. She said she plans to submit it to the appropriate school boards after the June 20 vote on a Montpelier-Roxbury merger.
The benefits for Montpelier of a Roxbury merger are much smaller for Montpelier than for Roxbury, Tringe noted, but she acknowledged a merger with Roxbury would not necessarily preclude a merger between Montpelier and U-32 in the future.
Tringe also expressed concerned over a possible $6 million bond that is being discussed by the Montpelier School Board. “Before we move forward with that bond, we need a full discussion of the issue in light of a possible merger with U-32”, she said. For example, spending money on the Montpelier middle school now might not make sense if that building would not be utilized following any Montpelier and U-32 merger, she said.
Tringe can be reached by email at Heidi@mmrvt.com or by phone at 272-7853.