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Committee calls for merger of Essex and Westford school districts

By Jess Wisloski
For The Essex Reporter

Community members from Essex and Westford who have been investigating a possible school district consolidation agreed unanimously to merge the districts into one supervisory union last night.

In order to proceed with the full unification of the districts, a majority of voters in Westford, Essex Village and Essex Town must approve. They are tentatively scheduled to vote on the issue in November.

The unified district may eventually become known as the Essex Westford Unified Union School District (the name has not yet been finalized). If approved, the communities could be the first in the state to do so under a new law, called Act 46, which was passed in the spring by the Legislature.

The group of 20 panel members, all of them volunteers representing parents, educators, and taxpayers across the three municipalities, approved of the merger agreement last night in the basement of Essex High School’s library. The committee also approved 20 articles that will set the stage for the first three years of the new union’s leadership.

“There were definitely details we wrangled over a bit, and people maybe even walked away without feeling like they got 100 percent what they wanted form those conversations [around the articles], but the fact that it was unanimous vote tonight it means this committee is committed to the notion of a merger,” said Brendan Kinney, chairman of the merger study committee.

If all three communities vote to merge on Nov. 10, the union will be on track to net the highest incentives the state offered for a voluntary unification effort.

On that five-year tax incentives plan, the owner of a $250,000 home who pays full taxes could see savings of $250 to $300 per year at the very start of the incentives rollout, according to one financial model that the group analyzed.

If Westford, however, does not vote to merge — which some community members fear might happen due to fears of losing local control and strong ties to the small town’s local school — the town and village of Essex will still be on track to unify.

In the case of a Westford ‘no’ vote, Westford’s school, a K-8 elementary school, could be reassigned to become part of Franklin County districts or another region.

Kinney, who is a parent and school board member in Essex Town, said despite the earlier agreement by the committee in a straw poll, he didn’t fully expect the unanimity that came out at the end of the process ­– especially since debates over the articles wording were still quite lively until just minutes before they were completed.

“I was surprised that it was a unanimous vote. But up until the very end, all of the members of the committee were thoughtful, they asked a lot of questions — they were very focused on the details — I think they just did a very amazing job in certainly vetting this very complicated question.” He did, however, emphasize that the group had spent 40 to 60 hours completing their investigation over the past four months, and had developed a strong rapport.

“I’m very pleased that we ended with an affirmative vote, but I know we also have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of engaging the greater community and the road ahead,” Kinney said.

Now all 20 committee members are asked to play the role of evangelists, communicating the benefits of the merger to the greater community.

In Chittenden East Supervisory Union, that process meant holding 16 in-person community meetings over the course of four months’ time to educate residents in Bolton, Huntington, Jericho, Underhill and Richmond about the benefits of a unified district, which they approved last year—and even then, one community (Huntington) voted to opt-out.

Keeley Schell, a committee member and educator who substitute-teaches at Village schools, as well as in Westford, and has a kindergartener son, said the next steps might be the harder part.

“I got involved because I was really confused as a parent — I had no idea who was my school district,” she said. “I’d get mailers from the town about buses, and then I’d find out we don’t have buses, because we’re in the Village.”

Through her role on the panel, she’s now in close contact with the Prudential Committee, one of the school boards that oversees part of her district— but she realizes most of her friends and neighbors know exactly what she did a few months back: very little.

“Now I’m going to be trying to explain all these things to all my other neighbors, who are equally confused about how our system works,” she said.