On Tuesday, Nov. 10, six months after signing the historic education reform law known as Act 46, Gov. Peter Shumlin highlighted its early success in sparking local conversations statewide about how to enhance educational quality for Vermont’s kids. The governor made the announcement at Essex High School a week after voters from the towns of Essex, Essex Junction, and Westford voted to streamline their governance structure, forming one unified district to serve 10 schools in the three communities. The unification was the first under Act 46 and reduces the number of schoolboards from five to one and superintendents from two to one.
The governor was joined for the announcement by House Speaker Shap Smith, chairman of the House Education Committee Dave Sharpe, Essex Rep. Tim Jerman, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, local schoolboard members, students, and others.
“The message here is simple: Act 46 is working,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said. “Communities around Vermont are having important conversations about how to improve educational quality for their kids because of this law, not despite it. Given the 20 percent decline in school enrollment over the last 20 years, it is clear we need to adapt to preserve the high-quality education we value. Vermont communities are answering that call with local decisions, not prescriptions from Montpelier.”
Act 46 provides incentives and assistance to school systems that combine governance structures to share resources, streamline costs, and expand opportunities for kids. Currently, 11 systems are actively exploring or considering accelerated mergers under the law, more than double the five expected earlier in the year. Additionally, about 10 formal study committees have been formed to explore potential unifications and a dozen other communities are in informal discussions about their options under the new law.
“Act 46 is about creating more equity for our children,” said House Speaker Shap Smith. “Under the law, more and more Vermonters are focusing their local education decisions on finding efficiencies and maximizing academic opportunities. These communities’ willingness to work together to find solutions will allow community members, teachers and administrators to focus on what’s most important – educating our kids.”
The unification vote in Essex, Essex Junction, and Westford provides an example of how communities are using the law to realize efficiencies, cost savings, and expanded opportunities.
The newly formed unified district combing the three towns will have one school board that will oversee policy and direction for roughly 4,000 students. An initial analysis concluded that over a 5-year period, more than $1 million in savings could be realized, mostly by consolidating central office administrations. Through additional analysis by the business managers from the respective districts, opportunities for additional cost savings and efficiencies are expected.
Technology is one example where costs savings will be realized as a result of the merger. Within a unified union there will be one technology system to update and maintain across the system (e.g., payroll and accounting, human resources, student information and performance data). This will result in fewer vendors and increased buying power for internet service, software applications, and technology hardware. With fewer systems to purchase and manage, resources could be redirected to provide greater access to customized and personalized learning opportunities for students, for example, through personal devices.
A single structure will also allow for systemic personalized learning plan (PLP) planning and increased personalized learning opportunities. It will increase the ability to sustain specialty offerings such as Advanced Placement classes, Internships, Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) Academy, and the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts (AVPA). There will be greater opportunities to share Special Education programs so the needs of children with special needs can be met within the public school setting. And with English Language Learner enrollment in the region continuing to rise, a single district provides an opportunity to share teachers for specialized instruction to meet the needs of this expanding population.
A unified district will also enable every student greater access to a vast array of extracurricular choices (i.e. athletics, clubs, string orchestra, band, choral groups etc.) and other choices that may not currently exist in their schools.
Finally, by unifying the three districts, the professional learning community (PLC) of school leaders, teachers and support staff will become more diverse, allowing for a greater, richer exchange and sharing of resources, ideas and successes.