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The Guilford Town School Board discusses participation in a study committee to examine school-district mergers in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union at a Sept. 21 meeting.

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School mergers debated in Windham County

All but one school board in WSESU have voted to explore merging districts under the new education law. But are towns pressured to consolidate?

BRATTLEBORO—At a recent meeting, the Guilford Town School Board tackled what seemed to be a simple agenda item — developing a brief, matter-of-fact letter informing residents of upcoming discussions required by Act 46, Vermont’s new education-governance law.

But it turned into a difficult, extended debate as board members went line by line, trying to compromise on wording that, depending on each member’s viewpoint, may or may not have been skewed in favor of school consolidation.

At one point, while discussing the Legislature’s intent in drafting the law, board member Erin Tkaczyk said, “We need to assume the best intentions.”

Board member Steve Redmond replied, “No, we don’t.”

The board eventually agreed to participate in a study committee examining possible merger options — a committee that’s been approved by all but one district in the Brattleboro-based Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

But a line from the Guilford board’s proposed letter likely indicates the anguish with which many small-school officials across the state are approaching Act 46.

“We are faced with one of the largest statewide educational changes in recent history,” the letter says.

Law addresses rising costs, district size

Act 46 is billed as the Legislature’s attempt to address vexing dilemmas: The cost of Vermont’s public-education system is rising, leading to regular property tax hikes even as student enrollment has declined statewide.

There also is concern that Vermont does not offer equitable educational opportunity among all students, especially those in very small districts.

The state’s solution, at least for now, is twofold. In a bid to provide immediate financial relief to taxpayers, Act 46 imposes a variable cap on the amount each district can increase its budget from year to year.

More importantly, there is a sweeping new governance structure designed to strongly encourage — some would use the word “force” — school districts to merge with their neighbors.

Specifically, the law calls for formation of larger, unified districts hosting at least 900 students.

The state emphasizes that there is no mandate to close small schools, but the push is toward one pre-K-through-12 board governing an entire district rather than a network of town school boards each making their own budgetary and staffing decisions.

School administrators envision benefits

After the 2015 legislative session ended, Gov. Peter Shumlin hailed Act 46 as a law that “right-sizes our educational enterprise to reduce cost and improve equality.”

And in Windham Southeast, which includes schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Putney, Guilford, and Vernon, Superintendent Ron Stahley sees opportunity in change.

In a recent interview, Stahley and WSESU Business Administrator Frank Rucker presented a long list of what they believe are potential benefits of forming a larger, unified district — possibly a single district covering the entire supervisory union, which is the state’s fifth-largest in terms of enrollment.

First and foremost, they tout additional student opportunities.

For example, Stahley foresees an ability to offer more foreign-language and technology instruction at smaller WSESU schools, along with a greater range of after-school programs.

“It’s very hard to institute or implement new initiatives when you’re so strapped with your current budget,” Stahley said.

There’s also the possibility, they say, of hiring more full-time staff and therefore attracting and retaining more high-quality teachers. The idea is that staff members in a unified district could be more easily shared among schools, reducing the financial burden on each school.

“That’s where all the money is: salary and benefits and staffing,” Rucker said. “So when you remove the barrier, which is the legal-entity barrier [...] you’re going to have so much more flexibility to meet student need. And that’s one of the primary goals of the act — equity of opportunity.”

Stahley also is promoting the possibility of better preschool and Head Start coordination among WSESU schools. For example, Guilford has for several years discussed launching its own preschool, but finances have been a barrier.

“As it is now, I don’t think they can pull it off with their current budget constraints,” Stahley said.

Additionally, Stahley and Rucker are pitching the idea of savings via shared purchasing, custodial services, energy management, and auditing.

In a state that places a premium on local control, Stahley knows there will be opposition to giving up a town school board.

“The concern that typically will be voiced is the lack of local control. Now we’re going from a town school board to this ‘superboard,’” Stahley said.

But he sees ways in which a regional configuration already is working.

For instance, a state-mandated consolidation of special-education governance at the supervisory union level has saved WSESU $300,000 this year, and “the services are actually better than they were,” Stahley said.

He also cites the example of the regional Brattleboro Union High School No. 6 School Board, which includes representatives from each member town.

If a supervisory district would form under one board in WSESU, Stahley foresees ways to retain local input even beyond the individual members of a regional board.

“What I’d want to see is what the state is calling school-based councils,” he said. “Those would be kind of like an advocacy board where you’d have the board representative from the [supervisory district] board, you’d have the principal, you’d have some parents and community members.”

Two paths toward consolidation

The state has set up a structure by which governance mergers could happen under Act 46.

The first puts consolidation on the fast track: The “accelerated” merger process calls for all member districts of a supervisory union to join in a unified district, with approval from each member town needed by July 1, 2016, according to guidelines on the state Agency of Education website.

Without unanimous approval from all districts in a supervisory union, an accelerated merger can’t happen.

A second tier, called “conventional” mergers, can include districts from different supervisory unions. Town votes are needed by July 1, 2017, for conventional mergers, the state says.

There are property tax incentives associated with each merger option. And the state’s current Small School Support Grant, for districts with at least one school with fewer than 100 students or if the average grade size is 20 or fewer, becomes a “merger support grant” for those schools that qualify.

There’s also a more-vague category that the state dubs “alternate structures.” Schools interested in going that route apparently must explain to the Agency of Education their long-term governance model and how it meets the goals of Act 46.

Stahley uses a different term for that option: “noncompliance,” meaning the state eventually will step in and decide which district a school will belong to if the school won’t decide for itself.

That was the flash point for debate in Guilford.

A small town ponders its options

The town school district is no stranger to sharing resources. In 2013, Guilford voters decided to send their seventh- and eighth-graders to Brattleboro Area Middle School to save money and give students access to more programming.

But at a Sept. 21 meeting, when Guilford School Board member Beth Bristol read a proposed letter to residents regarding Act 46, board Vice Chairman Steve Redmond bristled.

Bristol said she simply was trying to explain the intent of the act, while Redmond believed the letter tacitly endorsed school mergers.

“I think we should be presenting neutrally, rather than a selling point for any particular structure,” Redmond said.

“I’m a relatively cynical person,” he added. “I think [the state’s] intent is trying to control our local school districts and transfer power to the state.”

Redmond also wants residents to know that accelerated and conventional mergers may not technically be the only options for Guilford.

“It would be very difficult for an individual school to go out on its own,” Redmond said. “But, nonetheless, I don’t think the law has ruled that out as an option.”

Board members eventually shelved the letter for the night, moving on to whether or not the board should participate in a WSESU study committee “to analyze the advisability of forming a union school district under Act 46.”

Redmond again objected to the language in a document distributed by Stahley, saying he wanted assurance “that this would be an impartial committee, looking at the various options.”

After some debate, the Guilford board did approve participation in the study committee, joining school boards in Brattleboro, Dummerston, and Putney. Among WSESU districts, only Vernon — where school choice is a big issue — has not yet voted to join the study committee.

But the Guilford vote illustrates how tough the issue is for local school directors: Redmond voted against the study committee, and board Chairwoman Alice Revis abstained “because I am just frustrated with the whole thing,” and she doesn’t yet understand all the implications of Act 46.

“The law itself is basically funneling you [toward mergers]. You have nothing that you can do about it, and that’s the frustration we all have,” Revis said.

Stahley doesn’t necessarily see it that way, saying that the final decisions on school mergers will be left to town voters.

“People are going to look at this and say, ’Okay, so what are the plusses, what are the negatives, what’s good for our town, what’s good for the district,’ and then make some assumptions and make some decisions,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #325 (Wednesday, September 30, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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