AOE Report Mentions St. Johnsbury School District Merger

Chris Wenger, St. Johnsbury School Board Chairman, last week reading a statement the board had just approved about entering into an agreement with Superintendent Ranny Bledsoe, allowing her to leave her contract in mid-August. The board now needs to find an interim superintendent, as well as conduct a search for a permanent superintendent. In recent days, it's also come to light that the State Agency of Education, in a report, has suggested St. Johnsbury should be assigned to either Caledonia Central Supervisory Union or the Kingdom East School District in the future. School Board member Mark Avery is at Wenger's right as he reads the statement, which at that time did not identify Bledsoe as the employee with whom the vague agreement had been struck. The next day, it was confirmed that it was with Bledsoe, who is leaving after a stormy few months. (Photo by Amy Ash Nixon)

ST. JOHNSBURY — An Agency of Education (AOE) report says the St. Johnsbury School District could someday be assigned to a larger Supervisory District under Act 46.

In a 189-page statewide plan, Agency Secretary, Dr. Heather Bouchey, says the state may want to revisit more than a dozen areas to consider boundary adjustments “in order to create more sustainable planning and administrative service units.”

The report also makes recommendations for forced mergers of districts which did not voluntarily merge under Act 46, the 2015 statewide school district consolidation law.

A possible assignment of St. Johnsbury to either the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union or the newly-unified Kingdom East School District is referenced halfway through page 188, the final page of text before the report’s appendices.

Jen Botzojorns, superintendent of Kingdom East, said Wednesday, “I do not have any information other than what is written in the report.”

Kingdom East is a newly unified district made up of eight towns - Burke, Concord, Lunenburg, Lyndon, Newark, Sheffield, Sutton and Wheelock, with six of the towns coming from the now dissolved Caledonia North Supervisory Union and two from the now-dissolved Essex-Caledonia Supervisory Union.

Caledonia Central Supervisory Union (CCSU) Superintendent Mat Forest could not be reached Wednesday. CCSU is housed in Danville and includes the newly unified Caledonia Cooperative School District of Barnet, Walden and Waterford in a 3 x 1 structure with Peacham as an independent district, and Danville which operates as a PreK-12 district.

St. Johnsbury School District wasn’t required to find partners to merge with when the State passed Act 46 in 2015, requiring school districts with fewer than 900 pupils to find ways to merge or partner into larger districts.

Outgoing St. Johnsbury School Superintendent Ranny Bledsoe on Wednesday said the AOE did not inform her office of possible reassignment. “I am looking into this as well to give the Board an update,” Bledsoe said. “No one has been in contact with us. We are not required to restructure legally because our population is over 900, and if this is about forced reassignment, that’s a whole new development. I hope to have more news next week.”

St. Johnsbury has just over 1,100 students.

“Our tax rate is about 20 cents lower than the average around, and our per pupil spending is very much lower than other places,” Bledsoe said. “So it is hard to see how there would be savings. As tax rates would be the same throughout the SU, St. J. tax rates would certainly rise by a lot.”

State Rep Weighs In

State Rep. Scott Beck, R-Caledonia-3, a member of the House Education Committee, said the reference is not a recommendation at this point.

“They technically do have the authority to re-draw supervisory union lines,” Beck said. “And as they re-draw lines, they could move districts in or out into a new union.”

Beck was unaware of the reference in the AOE report until recent days, but said “If our school board was considering joining a supervisory union, this would be, from a personnel standpoint, an opportune time.”

Superintendent recently announced her resignation.

While there may be some savings in personnel, there are other considerations, Beck explained.

“We’re a pretty big district… over 1,000 kids,” Beck said. “I think the SU model is maybe the best model we can come up with for districts that are too small to warrant their own superintendents. The SU budget is not voted on by the districts, right now in St. Johnsbury we have control over the superintendent’s office budget, we get to vote on that. If we go to an SU, we don’t get to vote on that anymore.”

Beck said St. Johnsbury is Act 46 compliant. “There is nothing that would force us to join another district unless we wanted to,” he explained. “I guess the State Board could enter into a conversation about St. J joining another SU… That really has nothing to do with Act 46.”

AOE Report

The acting Secretary of the AOE is recommending that any additional SU reassignments the state requires beyond the Act 46 statewide plan not be put into effect before July 1, 2020, “unless the districts affected request that it occur sooner.”

In the statewide plan, Bouchey wrote to the State Board that in the future, they “will want to require SU boundary changes in order to create more sustainable planning and administrative service units in many regions of the State.”

Bouchey suggested, “The State Board (after acting on the Act 46 Statewide Plan) could then revisit the question of SU boundary lines in the coming months and years, perhaps beginning talks with districts in the spring of 2019 and meeting on a regular basis with them thereafter to remain apprised of the progress of mergers and other activity.”

Ted Fisher, digital communications and web manager for the AOE on Wednesday said the list of possible school district reasignments after the Act 46 process concludes is “very preliminary.”

“The Secretary is actually recommending that the State Board of Education not make any SU adjustments effective before July 1, 2020 due to the Act 46 process,” said Fisher. “The authority to set SU boundaries rests with the state board and is separate from Act 46 … In this context, the list on page 188 (of the Statewide Plan) is probably better seen as suggestions for future conversations to be taken up after Act 46 is fully implemented.”

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