Stamford, Vt., Clarksburg set off on 'roadmap' to merger

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CLARKSBURG — Local officials will roll up their sleeves on Tuesday and begin paving the way to unify elementary schools in Clarksburg and Stamford, Vt., into a single district.

The interstate merger committee, comprised of representatives of both communities, will meet from 2 to 6 p.m. at Clarksburg Elementary School.

The working session will lead to a joint town meeting at 6:30 p.m. May 15 at Clarksburg School, in which the interstate merger committee will present a "roadmap" of recommendations to both towns.

The towns have three basic options to choose from — they can leave things the way they are, merge into a single district but keep the schools completely separate, or realign and combine the schools on a grade level, making one school prekindergarten through second grade and the other third through eighth grade.

Ultimately, voters in both towns would need to approve a merger, likely at yet-to-be-scheduled special town meetings later this year. The interstate agreement would likely also require the approval of both state boards of education and state legislatures.

Due to a number of moving parts, town voters might be asked to greenlight a merger before all of the facts are crystal clear, officials have said.

Exploration of a merger was spurred, in part, by Vermont's Act 46, which forces schools to consolidate.

Though the Clarksburg and Stamford merger would be the first across the Vermont and Massachusetts border, interstate agreements are not unprecedented in Vermont, where some schools have shared services with districts along the New Hampshire border.

A feasibility study was conducted by Public Consulting Group — representatives of which will be present for Tuesday's working session — and funded with $25,000 each from the Vermont and Massachusetts legislatures. It began in January and included analysis of the two towns' finances, the condition of each school building, curriculum and other factors that will be key in any potential merger.

In its summary of findings, the consultant points to a number of potential benefits from a merger.

Realigning grades could help address Stamford's declining enrollment — which resulted in multigrade classrooms — while helping Clarksburg alleviate the persistent capacity issues in its building.

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Stamford students, the study suggests, could benefit from being aligned to Massachusetts' curriculum and no longer having multigrade classrooms.

"Stakeholders from both communities expressed the hope that a merger may bring on expanded opportunities for project-based and differentiated learning given the larger class sizes," the study states. "Some stakeholders saw the opportunity for increased foreign language options, along with other specialized or elective courses at the middle school level."

Clarksburg families could benefit from the prekindergarten offerings at Stamford, while Stamford could take advantage of the after-school day care program in Clarksburg. Students in both districts, the study suggests, could possibly have more extracurricular opportunities — such as middle school sports — as part of a larger district.

As for special education, a united district could result in stronger services.

"Related service providers are currently spread thin serving multiple districts, and their time in the school in limited," the study states. "Stakeholders hoped that a merger would afford them more time in their building."

Some in Clarksburg are concerned that the merger could negatively impact the town's ability to bring in students through school choice, which generates revenue for the school. However, the study notes that is is"unclear if current school choice practices in Clarksburg are implemented in a manner that ensures maximum financial benefit. Currently 29 percent of students, but only 13 percent of funding, comes from school choice."

Overall, stakeholders believe a merger could make both schools more financially solvent. But there are "key funding differences" between the schools that would have to be addressed.

A number of gaps in curriculum and assessment between the schools would have to be addressed, including in reading and math.

Clarksburg Elementary has "significant building needs." The state Legislature has set aside $500,000 for repairs to the building's roof, but has not yet released the funding. Stamford's school, meanwhile, "gives the general appearance of being well-maintained." The two towns would have to work through how building needs would be funded.

And, of course, there is the issue of town pride. Some stakeholders worry that a merger could impact the town's identity and students' connection with their school.

The full summary of findings can be found on the Clarksburg School website's "interstate merger updates" page.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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