On April 26, 2017

Failed Act 46 merged school districts to make cases for “alternative structures”

By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger

The State Board of Education has approved the Agency of Education’s revised draft rules that will guide how school districts that don’t want to or can’t merge under Act 46 will make their case to the state.

The rules—on what are referred to as “alternative structures”—will now go to the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for approval. A number of school districts that want to pursue the path set forth in Section 9 of Act 46 have been asking for clarity on how the process will work.

State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling said the rulemaking process inspired a robust discussion and helped create a better product. “The rules give clarity to Section 9 and a road map for districts to follow,” she added.

The board approved the revised draft rules Thursday afternoon, April 20; the committee voted 11-0 to move the bill forward.

The rules around alternative structures have become a flashpoint for the state board as critics of the law have argued that the first version of the draft rules set the bar higher than for school districts choosing to merge.

Board Vice Chair William Mathis said that is no longer the case. The alternative “proposals have to go through the same process as voluntary mergers.”

Margaret MacLean, an advocate, agreed. “The state board has clearly listened to the feedback received from numerous schools and communities. The rules now hold alternative structures to the same standards used to judge preferred structures.”

In 2015, lawmakers passed Act 46, a law that sets up a three-year process for school districts to voluntarily merge into larger units. According to Act 46, the best type of school district is a single-district supervisory union with at least 900 students that educates all children in pre-K through grade 12 either by operating all grades, tuitioning all grades, or operating and tuitioning the same grades. But previous education acts 153 and 156 offer other types of unification models for merging school districts.

So-called Section 9 proposals have been called “alternative structures,” but the term encompasses much more than this. Merger models set in law, as well as those proposed in Senate bill S.122, which aims to introduce more flexibility to Act 46, are also alternative structures. The agency, state board and some lawmakers have begun referring to them instead as Section 9 proposals.

David Kelley, a critic of Act 46, said the heart of the problem is the school district consolidation law.

“Act 46 is a seriously flawed piece of legislation,” he said, adding there is no relationship between enlarging school districts and creating equity for students.

At the March meeting of the state board, a number of people commented on the proposed rules and Act 46. Huling said the revised rules tried to address most of their concerns but that some people just didn’t like the law.

“The state board cannot change the law, but we can help make the requirements that all proposals will be judged by clear in a transparent way,” she said.

Communities that are unable to voluntarily merge, or choose not to, are expected under Section 9 of the law to undergo a self-examination to see if they can meet the goals of the law to provide “substantial” equity, quality, financial efficiency, and a “variety” of opportunities for students. They also are required to meet with other school districts to see if there is a way to merge.

Ultimately, these school districts can give information to the Secretary of Education and state board supporting their arguments for joining a certain supervisory union. They have to explain how the school districts will work together and use their resources to improve schooling. School districts have to present their proposals to the secretary and state board by Nov. 30.

Because these proposals are expected to be part of the end of the three-year process, they go to the state board after voluntary mergers are completed. If the new school district map reveals districts orphaned by the voluntary mergers, the secretary will need to fix it.

In 2018, the secretary of education will come up with a plan to realign all unmerged districts based on their alternative proposals and a series of conversations with communities, according to the rules.

MacLean would still like to see communities be able to vote on the secretary’s plan.

“Communities expect a transparent process will be used and that they will have the ability to vote on any recommendations made by the secretary about the future of schooling in their towns,” MacLean said.

Legislation is pending in the House that would give school districts six months from the date of the rules becoming official to develop their plans and present them.

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