By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger.org
Voters went to the polls in Vermont towns Tuesday, June 7, to decide whether to merge school districts into larger units under Act 46. The law, enacted in 2015, provides incentives for town school districts to form larger regional school boards. The results at the polls were mixed.
Residents in Chittenden South and Washington West said “yes” to forming larger regional districts while a merger proposal in Orleans Central failed. In Franklin Northeast, all five towns scuttled a plan to merge districts.
Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said voters took a hard look at the options, and “had powerful conversations about the quality and equity of their schools, and how to preserve it into the future.”
Nicole Mace, executive director of Vermont School Board’s Association, commended communities and school boards for bringing the merger proposals to a vote. She said the results “make it clear that not every community is prepared to embrace governance change.”
Still, many local school boards have decided to move ahead with district mergers, despite a great deal of pushback and uncertainty. More than 50 school districts have gone to the ballot box to decide whether to merge districts and change the way they deliver education to students.
Just getting to a vote is a major accomplishment, according to Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.
“When Act 46 was signed into law just about a year ago, I’m not sure any of us thought at this point, one year later, we would have seen so many communities vote so strongly in support of unified school districts,” Francis said.
Chittenden South’s study committee held 35 meetings over six months and put together a plan to join seven school boards into one. The merger saves $1.5 million over five years and boosts education programs for students, according to members of the study committee.
Voters backed them up yesterday: Charlotte (403 yes to 244 no), Hinesburg (257 yes to 122 no), Shelburne (533 yes to 91 no), Williston (404 yes to 223 no) and St. George (64 yes to 19 no).
Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said she was “ecstatic with the solid vote margins,” especially in Shelburne. Chittenden has been talking about merging for the past decade and Pinckney said they were 95 percent of the way there before this vote, “the only thing not consolidated is our governance and then the budgets.”
She is hopeful that what people have been referring to as “local control” will be translated into “local input.” The goal is to get communities even more engaged in their local schools, she said.
“This gives us an opportunity to really focus our attention on providing the very best education and opportunities for our kids,” Pinckney said.
In Washington West residents supported a proposed Harwood Unified School District made up of schools from Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, Warren and Waterbury. Washington West Superintendent Brigid Nease joked that after months of meeting twice a month for five and a half hours a time to analyze the local landscape and study the best ways forward, school board members could have earned a graduate degree. The working group eventually zeroed in on an accelerated merger as the best path.
All towns supported the measure by strong margins: Warren (279 yes to 163 no), Waitsfield (290 yes to 94 no), Moretown (190 yes to 47 no), Fayston (209 yes to 47 no), Duxbury (134 yes to 31 no), and Waterbury (452 yes to 29 no).
“We are in happy land,” she said. “We have dangerously small schools suffering from declining enrollments, and the way it works for us in the funding formula is not terrifically favorable. We are sitting here with really small schools that are cutting and cutting and property taxes keep going up. By coming together we really feel we will be able to mitigate some of that. We have two things we never had before: flexibility and capacity to make better decisions and to us you can’t put a dollar amount on that.”
Now they face the hard work of redesigning their program for students to be as cost effective as possible while improving quality and equity across all the schools, Nease said. One of the first things they want to take on now that they will have one school board is to expand the number of schools that offer foreign languages.
Nease said that one of the things that helped build enthusiasm for the merger was televising the meetings. Mad River TV replayed them free of charge on the Internet. Nease had many people call her and ask questions or make points after viewing the meetings.
In Franklin Northeast, the proposed merger there did not go the way Superintendent Jay Nichols had hoped it would. It was clear to him that confusion had set in and he called it last week: “I told the people in my office that I didn’t think it was going to pass.”
The State Board of Education approved a merger plan for the five rural towns of Bakersfield (99 no to 89 yes), Enosburg (158 no to 82 yes), Berkshire (113 no to 78 yes), Montgomery (219 no to 52 yes) and Richford (207 no to 60 yes) to unite. Bakersfield, Berkshire and Montgomery offer school choice.
Nichols said he advocated for the merger because he knew it would be better for students. Now that won’t happen, he said and taxes are going to go up over the next two years “if we don’t do something.” He blamed the overwhelming vote against the unification plan on an organized “no” campaign led by a school board member. One of the arguments made against merging was the idea that Act 46 will be eliminated by the next governor and a new legislature.
“One thing that won’t go away is the fact set that led to the passage of Act 46 in the first place,” said Francis. He ticked off the problems plaguing Vermont’s community schools: a drastic decline in enrollment, one of the highest levels of per pupil spending in the nation, too many teachers and staff for too few students, and a moratorium on school construction funds that has led to decaying facilities. At the same time, Vermont’s progressive education policies such as pre-K and flexible pathways need resources.
“So, the notion that anybody can look in the mirror and say, ‘we are OK as is’ is a false notion. I believe at some level the strength of the votes in the places that are deciding to unify is reflective of looking at what we have and what we will need in the future,” Francis said.
Francis said that every decade since the 1980s, school districts have been searching for a better delivery system. “We have arrived at a point with our current data set where policy makers have said Act 46 is a reasonable approach. People that say, just wait a year because this is all going to change – in favor of what? Keeping things the way they are?”
The seven towns and eight school districts in Orleans South decided Tuesday, June 7, to veto a merger and keep things they way they are for now. The study committee had hoped the school districts of Albany, Barton, Brownington, Glover, Irasburg, Orleans, Westmore, and the Lake Region Union would merge after the vote.
The final draft of the study committee’s proposal reasoned that it was important to unite to save small school grants that totaled half a million dollars this past school year. That argument didn’t sway voters in Westmore (32 no to 21 yes), Albany (36 no to 33 yes), Brownington (45 no to 22 yes), Irasburg (62 no to 27 yes), Glover (74 no to 37 yes), Orleans (41 no to 31 yes). But Barton voted in favor of unification with a vote of 56 yes to 35 no.
Together, these Northeast Kingdom towns communities have lost about 25 percent of their student population, Secretary Holcombe says.
By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger.org