hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2019


Small schools weigh interstate merger

Cross-border district would be first linking Vermont and Mass.




The local school in Stamford, Vt., housed in the same complex as the town office and library, has fewer than 100 students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. The Stamford school district is considering merging with a district across the state line in Clarksburg, Mass. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


When Vermont began a major push for school consolidation four years ago, state officials suggested that the small school in Stamford join forces with those in two other towns along the state’s southern border.

But with the nearest of those towns 12 miles away over winding roads on the other side of a mountain, local voters overwhelmingly said no.

Now Stamford is considering a different partner for a school merger – across the state line in Clarksburg, Mass.

The prospect of an interstate school merger raises a host of legal and bureaucratic challenges, but supporters in both towns say the concept makes a lot of sense.

“If the two schools were in the same state, they would have merged already,” said John Franzoni, superintendent of the North Berkshire School Union, which covers Clarksburg and four other small towns.

Across New England, small school districts are under pressure to join forces as declining enrollment strains their resources. Stamford’s interest in a possible merger with its neighbor to the south was spurred by Vermont’s Act 46, an ambitious plan state legislators approved in 2015 to encourage consolidation of smaller school districts.

Vermont’s student-age population has been dropping for decades, and Act 46 seeks to reduce inefficiencies in the state’s public school system by encouraging districts with similar structures to merge.

The new law set a goal under which each of the state’s districts would have a minimum of 900 students. Stamford’s school has fewer than 100.

Because of its small enrollment, Stamford has combined all of its grades into two-year classrooms except pre-K, which is a stand-alone program, and grades 6-8, which are in one classroom.

“The combined classes force kids to stay on top of their academics, but we don’t recommend it,” said Cynthia Lamore, the Stamford school board president, who also is a member of the committee studying a merger with Clarksburg.

Even with the multi-age classrooms, though, Stamford has been able to maintain a good quality of education, she said.

“It has been working,” Lamore said. “We’re really fortunate with the teachers we have in place.”


Guided by geography
The state Agency of Education initially proposed merging Stamford with Readsboro, the next town to the east, and Halifax, which is three towns and 24 miles to the east. Stamford’s voters rejected that idea, 173-6, in May 2017.

“Any map you look at is flat,” Lamore said. “Our territory is not.”
All three towns are in the Green Mountains along the Massachusetts line. Readsboro is 12 miles away over steep and winding roads that can be treacherous in winter. Even a member of the state education committee who visited Stamford admitted that “he wouldn’t want to send his kids over these roads,” Lamore said. (Readsboro and Halifax, between which the geographical barriers are less daunting, later voted to merge.)

As Stamford was discussing the state’s merger proposal in 2017, the Clarksburg town administrator and the head of the Clarksburg school board suggested that Stamford look south to Massachusetts instead. The schools and town centers of Stamford and Clarksburg are only four miles apart along a mostly flat highway. The two communities have a history of sharing other services, including fire protection, emergency medical and law enforcement.

In addition, after 8th grade, nearly all Stamford students go on to high school in North Adams, Mass., at either Drury High School or McCann Technical High School, under Vermont’s town tuitioning system. Under that system, students in towns that do not operate an elementary or high school can use state vouchers to attend any public or non-religious private school in or outside Vermont.

So looking to Massachusetts made sense to a lot of people in Stamford.
North Adams, the next community south of Clarksburg, “has always been our go-to for work and shopping, and church for some of us,” Lamore said.

Clarksburg could benefit too. With just under 200 students, its school building is running out of room.

Vermont requires public school districts to offer pre-K programs, although student participation is voluntary. Massachusetts has no such mandate, but 11 Clarksburg children attend Stamford’s pre-K program, with their parents paying tuition out of pocket. Merging the districts could allow all Clarksburg parents to participate.

“Clarksburg is considered highly successful academically” despite some crowding and a high proportion of low-income and special needs students, Franzoni said.

Between 50 and 60 of Clarksburg’s students come from North Adams through Massachusetts’ school choice program. Their parents appreciate Clarksburg’s small size and good academic reputation, Franzoni said.

“Clarksburg would have more school-choice kids if they had more room,” he said. “All the slots are filled now.”

The tuition paid by the North Adams students also helps the Clarksburg school’s budget.


Study offers options
After the 2017 vote against a merger with Readsboro, Stamford and Clarksburg formed an interstate merger committee and secured $25,000 each from the two states to begin evaluating the possibility of joining forces across the state line.

Late last year, the committee chose Public Consulting Group to come up with different options and examine the benefits and drawbacks of each. After reviewing the school districts’ finances, curricula, the condition of the school buildings and other factors and talking with stakeholders, the firm presented its findings in May in a joint town meeting at the Clarksburg school.
The consulting group gave the towns three options: no change; merge with the current grade configurations; or merge with new grade configurations.

The no-change option would not mean “no action,” the consultants warned, because the schools would still have to address their challenges.

Option 2 would combine the school administrations but would do nothing to solve the schools’ class size and space challenges. Any financial benefits would be minimal. The consultants did not recommend it.

Under Option 3, the schools would merge, consolidate office functions, and create two new schools -- one covering pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade in Stamford, the other with grades 3-8 in Clarksburg -- in the existing school buildings.

The consultants said the benefits of this third option would be both financial and educational. Stamford would have larger classes, and Clarksburg would be able to free up some space. Students in the two reconfigured schools would have more peers with whom to make friends and potentially more educational opportunities, services and extra-curricular activities such as sports.

Academics, testing
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a state-mandated testing regimen that starts in third grade and continues through high school, requires students to take its tests on a Massachusetts portal. Because nearly all Stamford students go to high school in North Adams, officials say putting them on the Massachusetts curriculum from the beginning of their schooling would better position them for success in high school.

Making Clarksburg a school for grades 3-8 would allow all of the merged district’s students to take the MCAS tests, which are a requirement for high school graduation. Under the current system, Stamford students who go to North Adams for high school don’t encounter MCAS tests until they’re sophomores, Lamore said.

The merger also would allow all Clarksburg parents to enroll their children in the pre-kindergarten program at the Stamford school.

“We hope it could become free,” Lamore said.
In votes held over the summer, residents of both towns supported taking the next steps toward a merger. The Clarksburg vote was “nearly unanimous,” Franzoni said. Stamford residents weren’t quite so sure, with a tally of 58-29 in favor of proceeding.

“The voters think it’s a lot to take on,” Lamore said. “They want what’s best for the students, but what will it do for their property taxes?”

The new district also would become the largest in the North Berkshire School Union, and the school union “is very leery of adding another component,” she said.

“There are certainly concerns,” Franzoni agreed. “Everyone is concerned about costs. Is this the best move for our towns?”

One obstacle is the condition of the Clarksburg school, which was built between the 1950s and the 1970s. The building needs major repairs and doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Massachusetts recently approved $18 million in building aid for the Clarksburg school, but local taxpayers would have had to come up with a match. Voters turned down the aid by a two-vote margin, Franzoni said, although the town approved $500,000 for new boilers and other repairs earlier this year.

The Stamford school, in contrast, is in good condition.


Navigating two states’ rules
At the administrative level, there are many differences between the two states, especially in how special education is handled, Lamore said. Vermont and Massachusetts have reciprocal teaching licenses, but a merged district would have to come to agreements on teacher salaries, benefits and pensions, licensing for administrators, how payroll is handled, and whether Stamford would remain part of the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union, among other issues.
“There are lots of things we need legislative support on,” Franzoni said.

Vermont law allows interstate mergers with New York and New Hampshire. Two interstate districts in Vermont and New Hampshire are already operating, and two more are in discussion.
Along Vermont’s western border, three small towns have for years sent their students to state-designated high schools in New York. Students in Rupert go to Salem, N.Y., for high school, while those in Pawlet and Wells go to Granville, N.Y. Under state law, those towns could merge their local school districts with those of their New York neighbors, but there’s no move to do so.
But Vermont has no similar compact providing for school mergers with Massachusetts districts.
The committee set up by Stamford and Clarksburg is looking to hire a coordinator for the second phase of the merger project, with proposals due Oct. 18. The coordinator’s final report, due in May, would spell out the details of how a merger could work, and voters in both towns would be able to weigh in again in July.

“They’ll let us know if this is something they want to go forward with -- and where forward is,” Lamore said. “That’s the most important part of all.”

The proposal would then go to both states’ legislatures. In Vermont, Emily Simmons, the general counsel for the state Agency of Education, said lawyers for the Legislature would draw up a proposed compact and negotiate the details with their counterparts in Massachusetts.


“I believe this is the first time that the issue has come up,” said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Many issues would have to be reconciled, and such a merger would require special legislation.”


Federal approval required
The U.S. Congress also would have to give final approval to the merger. One of the merger committee members has met with Sens. Bernard Sanders, D-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as well as officials at the federal Department of Education, Lamore said. Sanders and Warren were supportive of the idea, she said.

Federal education officials will review the proposed compact “for equity and conformity to federal standards,” she said.

But the committee expects the federal government’s review to be a fairly easy part of the process.

“It’s a final blessing,” Lamore said.
If all goes well, Lamore predicted the merger could take effect by the 2022-23 school year – “fingers crossed.”

“We’re hoping for the best,” Lamore said. “It’s an exciting time, but it’s a lot of work.”
Franzoni said a merger in time for the 2021-22 school year “would be the earliest possible, and that’s optimistic.”

“A lot of legislation has to be passed by the state,” and the next 12 months will be very important, he said. “It will be either go, adjust, or no go.”

The consulting firm’s report warned that an interstate merger won’t be easy.

“It should be noted that strong leadership, dedicated attention, and a collaborative spirit will be essential and non-negotiable for merger success,” the consultants wrote. “This is not easy work and will take significant effort, determination, and leadership to achieve a successful outcome.”
Merging “would be an easy decision if it were just a matter of education,” Franzoni said. “Unfortunately there are different education laws from state to state.”