BBA offers to take "any and all" Arlington students

ARLINGTON — Burr and Burton Academy is offering to take Arlington's high school students.

Burr and Burton Academy board chairman Seth Bongartz submitted a letter to the Arlington School Board last week expressing a willingness to explore accepting more students from the town.

The Arlington board doesn't appear to favor the proposal.

"We've watched the impacts of Act 46 unfold across our region and are aware of course that the people of the town of Arlington must choose a direction in regards to the education of their children," wrote Bongartz. "We're very much aware of the fact that any direction chosen will first involve making some very difficult decisions. I write to offer the option of Arlington High School students attending Burr and Burton Academy. I do not write to suggest what you should or shouldn't do, that is a decision for the people of Arlington, but I do want to offer some of the reasons this option might make sense." The letter goes on to list a sampling of the accolades and accomplishments of the academy.

"Essentially, through this letter, (BBA is) providing a path to Arlington to not operate our high school and go with a choice model for nine through 12," said Arlington chairwoman Nicol Whalen during last week's special meeting of the board, which was called to discuss Act 46.

The letter comes as Arlington mulls conducting a self-study of the potential impacts of joining the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union in a three-by-one configuration. The three-by-one structure, which was added as an acceptable structure in this year's Act 49, involves a side-by-side configuration in which a "merged district," made up of three existing districts, and an "existing district," are allowed to operate side-by-side as a single supervisory union. In the most likely scenario, Arlington would be the existing district and the merged district would be made up of Taconic and Green Regional School District, which offers high school choice, a district made up of Rupert and Pawlet, which both tuition to a high school in New York, and a district made up of Winhall and Sandgate, which both offer pre-K through 12 school choice. Because of the differing levels of school choice in each of the districts, a conventional merger would not be possible. By voting to join the three-and-one structure, Arlington would be protecting itself from being forcibly merged with another district when the State Board of Education eventually releases its statewide education plan.

Under this configuration as it is typically envisioned, Arlington would continue to operate Arlington Memorial Middle and High School and Fisher Elementary School. But this letter opens the possibility of a second path, namely that the district close their high school and offer school choice for grades nine through 12.

"That's exactly why I don't want to join the BRSU," said Arlington board member Kevin Smith in response to Whalen's reading of the letter, "because I think a public school option is a right for all students. Because they do not have to accept every student. They don't."

"Here's the thing though," said Whalen. "If we join under the three-by-one configuration, our pre-K through 12 configuration is secure. That doesn't dictate the political pressures, the social influences, the repercussions, but it does preserve our pre-K through 12 structure. The only body that can vote to close a school is the voters in the town of Arlington."

"When they offer for students to go up there and there's no students in (Arlington) high school because they're all up at BBA," said Smith, "what are the students that don't want to go (to BBA) supposed to do?"

"That's the thing I think we need to prepare ourselves for," said Whalen. "This is a threat to us. He's not writing it as a threat, but... the thing that we need to be mindful of is that they have already lured a number of our students, so if we can't provide what those students are looking for, whether it's BBA or Long Trail or something else, we're going to continue to lose those students."

Whalen said that with the right level of commitment from the community, Arlington Memorial High School could become a school that draws students from other BRSU districts, rather than having them drawn away. "We're going to have to think differently," she said.

"I agree," said BVSU Superintendent William Bazyk. "The fact that you have a similar school right up Route 7 is something that's going to have to be dealt with... It exists, obviously there are more students who will have access through Sandgate now, and more that are choosing to go there from Sunderland, and it's something that we need to be cognizant of." He made it clear that only the voters could choose to transition Arlington to a school choice model for high school, and that no superintendent or school board has that power.

"We want Arlington to know we would welcome any and all Arlington students, as simple as that," said BBA Headmaster Mark Tashjian, "We are not trying to tell Arlington what to do but we want them to know the opportunities and resources of BBA are available if that's where they want to go. And we give them every commitment that we give to our sending towns."

Tashjian said that the academy will be able to figure out the issue of capacity and manage the transition if it's something the Arlington community is interested in.

Arlington's next meeting is on Wednesday July 26, and Bazyk said that the district would work to formulate a formal response to the BBA letter by that time.

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB


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