The following article was published in the Thursday Edition (April 20, 2017) of the St. Albans Messenger
Tech school shift could be part of final proposal
By MICHELLE MONROE
FAIRFAX - In the wake of last year's failed merger talks with Georgia and Fletcher, the Fairfax school board has created its own study committee to examine the school district's options under Act 46.
The committee, chaired by Scott Mitchell, is reaching out informally to neighboring school districts including Essex, Milton and Cambridge to see what level of interest there is in a possible merger. "They're not official
merger talks," said Mitchell at a committee meeting Wednesday night. "Really, they're just seeing if our curriculums and philosophies fit together."
Fairfax has already had several conversations with the Maple Run Unified School District about joining Maple Run. Those conversations are now on hold while Fairfax sorts through its options.
Asked if a merger with Maple Run would close the Fairfax school, Mitchell said it would not. "We'd both run K-12 systems. Act 46 can't shutter a school," he said. "I don't believe [Bellows Free Academy, st. Albans] could take all of our students."
In addition to merger, Fairfax could also seek to remain a separate school district. Doing so would make the school an alternative structure under Act 46. In order to maintain the current configuration of the Franklin
West Supervisory Union (FWSU), the Georgia and Fletcher districts would also have to apply to be alternative structures, and all three would have to request that FWSU remain their supervisory union.
"The bar for an alternative structu1e is high," said FWSU superintendent Ned Kirsch.
School districts opting not to merge must demonsteate that they can meet or exceed the five goals of Act 46:
• Provide substantial equity in quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide;"
• Lead students to meet or exceed the state's education standards;
• Maximize efficiencies "through increased flexibility to manage, share and transfer resources with the goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to ... staff;"
• Promote transparency and accountability;"
• Deliver education at a cost "parents, voters and taxpayers value."
The conversation in Fairfax has been complicated by discussions of changing the school's designated tech center from Essex to Northwest Technical Center. Should Fairfax merge with Maple Run, the shift in tech center would be automatic.
However, the study committee has also mentioned a shift in tech center as a way in which Fairfax could potentially meet some of the goals of Act 46 without merging.
According to FWSU projections, shifting to Northwest Technical Center (NWTC) would save Fairfax between $250,000 and $300,000 each year.
In addition, NWTC is a half-day program, while Essex is a full day program. Having the tech center students in Fairfax for a half day would allow the school to increase offerings for all students in Fairfax, explained
Mitchell, because there would be more students to take those classes.
"We hear a lot of things in the community about us closing programs," said Mitchell. "We'd be able to- keep the students here for their core courses which would allow us to expand our offerings."
NWTC has also expressed an interest in working with Fairfax to create programs which would be offered at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, said Mitchell.
Committee members also clarified that should Fairfax change tech centers any student interested in a tech center program not offered at NWTC would still be able to enroll in Essex, Burlington or another tech center.
Currently; two Fairfax students are enrolled in NWTC for programs not offered at Essex.
However, changing tech centers does not have to be part of any application to remain an alternative structure, as study committee member Scott Hogan pointed out. It's simply one possible way of meeting some of
the goals for an alternative structure.
Fairfax had previously petitioned the Vermont State Board of Education to switch tech centers from Essex to NWTC, a move opposed by Essex. The board rejected the proposal after Essex argued it could potentially have a negative impact on programs at Essex by removing the 25 Fairfax students enrolled there.
Generally; members of the audience asked questions about a possible change in tech centers, with at least one woman' clearly opposed, while others appeared skeptical but wanting to know more.
"I think 'it's hard to maintain a quality school with the numbers we have now and what we spend," said one audience member, citing a decline in programs for students.
Fairfax has approximately 750 students from the town itself and an additional 105 tuition students.
One audience member, Todd Baumeister, a member of Fletcher's study committee, asked if Fairfax would consider a merger with Fletcher.
Fairfax previously held 10 months of merger discussions with Fletcher and Georgia, after which the committee voted not to pursue a merger of all three districts or a merger just between Fletcher and Fairfax. In 2011,
voters rejected a Fletcher and Fairfax merger.
Rochelle LeVau, who served on the 10-month committee with Baumeister, said, "The hurtles that were still there before, I would imagine, are still there."
The committee has agreed to decide whether to pursue a merger or attempt to create an alternative structure by June 1.
If Fairfax decides to remain its own separate district it will need to have an alternative structure application completed by November. If that application is rejected, then the Secretary of Education would recommend a merger partner for Fairfax to the State Board of Education. The board would then decide the district's fate.
The study committee meets every other Wednesday. They can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org