Local News

Districts that hope to avoid merger can expect to face high bar

By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger.org

The State Board of Education has decided to draw up guidelines and rules for communities interested in pursuing an alternative path to complying with Act 46 changes to school governance. And one thing is clear: For places hoping to keep things as they are, the bar is going to be fairly high for proving they should not be joining up with neighboring school districts.

“I wouldn’t want to give the impression with guidelines that we’ll entertain proposals that allow you to stay the same,” said Stephan Morse, chair of the board.

He added that alternative structures are last on a long list of options that communities should consider. “I think this board is very supportive of Act 46,” he said. “We are looking for larger school districts, better equity, and that [goal of 900-student districts] is not cast in stone, but it is there, and we are looking for people to change.”

The Board decided at its annual retreat last week to come up with guidance on Act 46 alternatives. Vice Chair Sean-Marie Oller said the mergers that have been approved set a high standard for others to follow.

“I’m thinking if a group wants to stay the same, they should have the same burden of proof that a group that wants to merge has to provide,” said Stacy Weinberger, a board member from Burlington. For instance, they should have to show with data that every child will have access to the same educational opportunities, just as groups seeking to merge have had to back up their claims with data.

The three phases of Act 46 compliance

The process for getting districts into voluntary compliance with Act 46 has three phases. The first has just finished, with voter approval of 12 unifications after 14 votes. Vermont has entered the second phase, where more complex mergers are likely that still qualify for a host of tax incentives and protections such as allowing small-schools grants and “phantom student” funds—which cushion the financial blow to districts when enrollments decline—to flow to participating schools. The state board also will be adopting guidance for phase two voluntary mergers.

The final phase is meant for school districts or groups of districts that propose an alternative structure, meaning they will tell the State Board of Education they can meet the equity, quality and cost goals of Act 46 without changing their governance structure. The expectations detailed in the law are set high: to provide “substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities” and lead students to meet or exceed the education quality standards while maximizing efficiencies in managing and financing the schools at a cost that taxpayers value.

There is nothing in law, rules or guidance to describe what kind of criteria will be acceptable to the Board for a school district or supervisory union that wants to stay the same. “I can’t make up an answer that doesn’t exist in the law,” Donna Russo-Savage of the Legislative Council told State Board members. She said some areas are interested in moving forward with alternative structures right now but will need clear steps of things that have to be done.

The Board debated whether providing guidance would discourage areas from engaging in conversations with neighbors that might lead them to a new way of doing things. But Russo-Savage said the law requires unmerged areas to engage in discussions with other school districts.

Requirements unclear for alternative structures

To offer an alternative structure, a school district is required to perform a self-evaluation and look at how it can or can’t meet the goals of the law. Alternative districts are not eligible for any tax incentives, and they most likely will lose small-schools grants and hold-harmless monies.

Their proposal is more of an advisement to be used by the secretary and State Board when they match up the unmerged parts of the state in 2018. Act 46 directs the Board to review the secretary’s plan, and the Board has the authority to put districts together, but it cannot tell a district to change its current operating or tuitioning structure.

Demographic isolation a concern

Going forward, the Board will have to start thinking about the entire state and how each merger would impact those around it in preparation for the final school district map the state will be creating. A major concern of the Board is ensuring that mergers do not create demographic isolation.

“If you want to stay the same [because] you are doing great but one kid gets an opportunity and another doesn’t, then it isn’t great,” said Krista Huling, a State Board member from Jeffersonville.

She said she will expect data that prove there is equity between schools for any system that wants to stay the same. “I want a supervisory union to really look at the schools and show me those charts that show you are the same in all these elementary schools and all these kids have the same opportunities—then you have a good argument,” she said.

“We really want to send a pretty clear message that we are going to hold people’s toes to the line,” said State Board member Mark Perrin of Middlebury. “We want to know conversations are happening [between school districts] and what they plan to do if they plan to do nothing.”

Rethinking small-school grants

The small-schools grant has been one of the larger carrots in the Act 46 school governance law. Districts that choose to merge get to keep it, although under a different name: the perpetual merger support grant. For everyone else, the grant phases out in fiscal year 2020, and most school districts that remain unmerged—or shoot for alternative structures—will no longer receive the extra support.

At its annual retreat, the State Board of Education agreed to develop and adopt rules to help define how it intends to decide whether to award small-schools grants after fiscal 2019. Districts that didn’t voluntarily merge could still get a small-schools grant if they operated a school that has an average grade size of 20 or fewer students and if the State Board determines annually that either transportation prevents a merger (because of drive times and inhospitable routes) or the school proves to be fiscally efficient and offers excellent academic programs.

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