To merge or to collaborate as a Supervisory Union?
Act 46 as amended by Act 49, in looking to save money on public education, requires schools to:
“1. Provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities within their districts that lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards;
“2. maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time-equivalent staff;
“3. promote transparency and accountability; and
“4. are delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value.”
I think that we can all agree with these worthy goals. Education in Vermont has become more expensive even as the number of students has declined substantially. There are greater numbers of students with severe emotional needs, increased numbers of students living in poverty, and an increase of families in crisis for whom the schools have had to provide an array of human services.
Despite hearing comments about people who oppose the merger as being against change or fearful or not caring about the children, I know that people on both sides care deeply about the children and are not afraid of change.
The members of the merger study committee have spent untold hours on this merger proposal and have found inequities in our supervisory union. They have been thanked repeatedly for their work.
The legal purpose of the Study Committee was to look at the variety of merger options for WSESU and could not legally look at the alternative to a merger. I believe that committee members have come up with what they believe is the best possible merger scenario. However, that does not mean that one should vote out of loyalty to any person or group.
Act 46/49 also contains a provision for an Alternative Governance Structure, which is defined as a Supervisory Union with member districts. Statewide, at least eight supervisory unions are pursuing this option and have actively helped one another.
Should WSESU vote down a merger proposal, then the supervisory union must still meet the above goals of Act 46. These goals can all be met if we make improvements to the current union structure. Both Dummerston and Brattleboro have official subcommittees for this express purpose. Putney is participating as an unofficial presence, Vernon has been attending, and Guilford has had interested citizens. It is likely that Vernon could remain in the supervisory union in this context.
As a supervisory union, we should have been having these conversations years ago. Since class size has been a large driver of education costs, having supervisory-union-wide school choice could help with balancing class sizes where needed. Doing so would also offer those students who need something different with a better fit, and a home school for children who move frequently during the school year.
In terms of middle schools, there again parents would have a wider range of options. Each of the schools in the SU has a unique program that has been developed over the years.
In fact, everything that the merger is proposing as benefits can be done as a supervisory union. The $150,000 grant and incentive school property tax reductions are meant to cover the cost of merging. Most of the towns that have merged are finding out that the incentives do not provide enough money, thereby making the merger the more costly option.
For Putney residents, the so-called tax incentives amount to $400 over four years on a $200,000 homestead without even taking into account the property-tax rebate from the state.
Is giving up local governance worth that price?
WSESU has worked well for decades. Vermont’s motto is “Unity and Freedom,” and WSESU is a terrific example of that. Consolidating power in fewer hands in a merger is in direct opposition to our motto.