By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger.org
Three Act 46 school district mergers were approved Tuesday, Dec. 15, by the State Board of Education (SBE) at a meeting in North Clarendon. The Agency of Education expects citizens to vote on 15 mergers before July 1, 2016.
Unification plans put forward by the Rutland South Supervisory Union, the Addison Central Supervisory Union and the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union were approved by the state board. The mergers will now move into the community engagement phase of the unification process. After that there will be an up or down vote by the affected communities.
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said the mergers are a “phenomenal accomplishment.” “People are really engaged in this conversation,” Holcombe said. “This is a hard conversation. Nobody wants to have this conversation. We have to really hand it to our school boards who have embraced this challenge.”
In a presentation about the progress of Act 46, Holcombe presented a circle graph showing that if the 15 merger proposals are approved by voters, about 42 percent of Vermont’s students will be attending school in larger, consolidated systems. Another 20 percent of students are located in areas where formal merger studies are under way.
Vermont has proportionally more school districts (283) and more school board members (1,440, which equals one for every 56 students) than any other state in the nation. One of the goals of Act 46 is to find efficiencies in the way local schools are governed through the consolidation of districts.
Act 46 encourages, and eventually requires, school districts to merge into larger administrative units over the next four years in an effort to better serve students and better manage costs. Districts that wish to partner together must first set up a study committee. Once a unification plan is agreed to by the committee it is sent to the secretary of the Agency of Education who then may or may not recommend it to the State Board of Education for approval. It then goes to the voters of the affected communities.
The State Board of Education also approved the first side-by-side merger in which school-choice districts can merge with one another within a larger administrative umbrella.
Brandon, Chittenden, Goshen, Leicester, Mendon, Pittsford, Sudbury and Whiting have proposed unification. Under the merger, two preK-8 school districts would form a single district, while the remaining seven districts in the supervisory would merge to form a single preK-12 district. A Barstow Unified Union and an Otter Valley Unified Union would be part of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.
The proposal will create two unified union districts and a supervisory union, and Rutland Northeast will be “the umbrella organization” for the districts. Eleven separate entities with 40 board members serving eight communities will be consolidated into three entities through the proposed merger.
The study committee considered several governance options, but found that choice for families in Chittenden and Mendon had to stay.
Districts may not operate a high school and offer school choice, so the two towns would not be merged with a unified district that operates a high school. Instead, the study committee recommended a two district structure that “provides many of the advantages of one district without sacrificing priorities.”
Rutland Northeast has centralized services. Otter Valley towns work together under the Otter Valley Union High School District and Chittenden and Mendon are joined under the Barstow Joint Agreement.
“This plan will allow the towns to bring in what works best for each of us, add opportunities, such as elementary school choice, and share a wider tax base while accessing the tax incentives and keeping small schools grants,” said Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. “It’s a win-win for us, as so much is already in place.”
Dave Younce, superintendent of the Rutland South Supervisory Union, said that Act 46 gave local communities the impetus to talk seriously about ways to provide more equal opportunities for students.
“Act 46 created the circumstances to make those conversations happen,” Younce said. “The Act created the need for the conversation. I’m proud of the (study) group that Rutland South entered into – the mindset of our group from day one was how we do this for the good of the kids.”
The towns of Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Tinmouth and Wallingford started talking in June and by October they had a proposal to create a Supervisory District. Their plan is not the preferred model defined by Act 46, but instead it is a Regional Education District structure that was created in Act 153. This method is acceptable under Act 46, but does not qualify for the accelerated merger tax incentives. It has a different set of tax incentives that begin at .08 cents for every $100 of assessed property value.
Rutland South will ask voters to approve the unification plan on March 8; it would go into effect on July 1.
Tinmouth offers school choice to high school students and while voters will still be able to access public school choice if they want to merge, they will no longer be able to send students to independent schools. The other three towns belong to Mill River Union. The majority of Tinmouth’s tuition students attend Mill River Union High School, according to Grant Reynolds, a study committee member from Tinmouth.
Currently, three students attend private school, four go to other public schools and the remaining 27 are at Mill River, he said. The three currently attending independent/private schools will all be grandfathered in until they graduate. Students who come after will either attend Mill River Union High School or exercise public school choice.
“It’s a decision that the school board feels has to be made in the interests of the great majority of the students. We know there are some folks in town who feel very strongly about school choice, but we hope that the interests of students who go to Tinmouth School, and then go on to Mill River whether we have choice or not, will prevail,” Reynolds said.
Until two years ago, Tinmouth was part of Rutland Southwest even though the majority of the town’s students went to Mill River. This made the community a de facto feeder school without the recognition. Tinmouth is now part of Rutland South Supervisory Union.
“Our books are kept by the SU; our special ed teachers are now SU employees, our buses come from the SU – at less cost than when we were paying contractors – and our curriculum will be aligned with both the other elementary schools and with Mill River Middle,” Reynolds said.
The study group also hopes to offer elementary school choice under a newly formed district.
They expect to see initial savings of around $377,413 through unification. They hope to stabilize property tax rates through the incentives provided through Act 153. They already received a $20,000 grant for the study and if voters approve their New Union School District (a temporary title) they will acquire an additional $130,000 to help cover transition costs. Finally, small schools grants and hold harmless provisions will continue if they merge.
The SBE approved an accelerated merger plan under Act 46 put forward by the towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. The communities will be asked to vote on the preferred model that creates a single preK-12 grade district with a single tax rate on March 1, 2016. If voters approve, they plan to be operational by July 1, 2016, which means they will be able to take advantage of the full package of tax incentives.
Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Peter Burrows is looking forward to the prospect of working as one, unified, cohesive system. “It will have a significant impact on how we operate,” Burrows said.
For one thing, Burrows says he would be able to spend more time building on the vision put forward in their strategic plan.
“It means more time focused on the work of both continuing the great work happening in ACSU as well as building on our strengths to improve student’s experiences and outcomes,” he said.
Over the last half decade, the school boards of Addison Central had been considering governance changes and when Act 46 passed they appointed a second study committee – the ACSU Charter Committee – to draft articles of agreement between the seven ACSU towns.
The agreement is designed to create “a sustainable and flexible governance structure” that allows schools to collaborate on educational programs and find financial and administrative efficiencies.
A study of the Addison Central merger cites $51,000 in potential savings in the first year. The report estimates savings of $50,000 in central administration savings in year two and $75,000 from school specific administration in year three.