Work continues on interstate school merger
STAMFORD — The potential benefits and challenges to an interstate merger between elementary schools in Clarksburg, Mass., and Stamford are becoming clearer.
But one thing is for certain: difficult decisions lie ahead.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," said John Franzoni, superintendent of the North Berkshire School Union, of which Clarksburg School is a member.
The meeting of the interstate merger committee, which was held on Monday at Stamford Elementary School, will be followed on April 30 four-hour action planning session in Clarksburg. Recommendations will then be presented to town residents at a joint public meeting on May 15.
Ultimately, it will likely be up to town voters whether or not to continue on the path toward an interstate merger across the Vermont and Massachusetts border, an agreement which would be the first of its kind.
"They're going to give us feedback on all of those so the voters and the residents can decide which one is the best option for both Clarksburg and Stamford," Franzoni said of Public Consulting Group, who will aid local officials in reviewing options moving forward.
Special town meetings could be held for a vote following the May 15 session. The 2021 school year is the target for a potential merger, if approved by voters in both towns.
Monday's meeting of the interstate merger committee — which includes representatives from both towns — is just the latest step in an effort that began more than a year ago, when these two rural communities first entertained the notion of working across the state border that separates them and merging their respective elementary schools into a single, prekindergarten through eighth grade district.
Public Consulting Group, tasked with taking on the feasibility study, has explored three basic options: the schools can merge on a level that reconfigures and splits the grades between the two buildings; the schools can merge only in district administration but maintain the grades as they are now; or the towns can opt to keep things just the way they are now — completely separate.
On Monday, Franzoni expressed his opinion the second option — combining the schools into a single district but leaving the grades the same — as "nonexistent."
"It doesn't do anything for either school to address what our needs are," Franzoni said, adding that his opinion is "either both towns stay the same and stay independent or we're looking at a combined regional district between Clarksburg and Stamford" with reconfigured grades.
One proposal floated by the consultant is realigning the grades to make Stamford a pre-kinderten through second grade school, while Clarksburg would become third through eighth grade.
Cindy Lamore, who chairs the Stamford School Committee, noted that reconfigured grades would result in classes of about 19-22 students, which is an "optimum" number. For Stamford, such a merger would result in a standalone third grade class that is not combined with the second or fourth graders.
In conducting the study — which was funded with $25,000 from Vermont and Massachusetts and enthusiastically supported by voters in each town — the consultant interviewed numerous stakeholders, including parents, teachers, district administration, and taxpayers since embarking on the work earlier this year.
The towns will have to explore how the schools would share finances, how they would align curriculum to meet the standards of each state, school committee oversight of a unified district, a new transportation system, and a host of other issues.
"They did a great job I thought of highlighting where the consistencies are between the two schools and the areas we'd have to work on," Franzoni said.
The full summary of findings was not shared with the committee until Tuesday and will be posted on the Clarksburg School's website, clarksburgschool.org, for the public to review.
The consultant was not present at Monday's meeting, but will be present at the April 30 working session.
The consultant has highlighted a number of similarities between the two schools, but there are important hurdles and differences that remain, including different funding sources, staff licensure, employee pensions, and union contracts.
Another challenge, Franzoni noted, would be the added strain of an additional school under the North Berkshire School Union umbrella on its district office, which already oversees schools in Savoy, Florida, Rowe, Monroe, and Clarksburg.
"It's pretty maxed out for taking care of the five towns we have now," Franzoni said.
But the merger has potential benefits for both towns.
For Stamford, the merger may offer a solution to a problem posed by Vermont's Act 46, a law that has forced dozens of schools across the state to consolidate resources in an effort to make public education more efficient.
An effort to consolidate with fellow Vermont towns Readsboro and Halifax was shot down by Stamford voters in 2017.
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