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School Board, Selectboard discuss Act 46, school consolidation

PUTNEY—As towns around the state begin to come to terms with Act 46, the school governance bill passed by the Legislature in the 2015 session, school boards and concerned townspeople have been meeting to share information. [See “School mergers debated in Windham County,” Sept. 30.]

Putney’s School Board joined the Selectboard during the latter’s Oct. 8 regular meeting to discuss Act 46, and to promote better communications between the two bodies.

“The state is incentivizing consolidation,” School Board member Richard Glejzer said at the meeting. He explained some districts in the state “have the opportunity [for] quicker consolidation,” and the state will reward them with tax benefits.

According to the “Act 46 Timeline” document from the Vermont Agency of Education [http://education.vermont.gov/documents/edu-act46-timeline.pdf], “local education agency action” can approve “accelerated mergers” by July 1, 2016 and, with state approval, can have them in place one year later.

By accelerating the merger, the participating towns can receive an initial tax break of 10 cents per dollar of residential property value. Each year, the savings are reduced by two cents on the dollar; thus, the break lasts five years.

Towns that adopt the “conventional” merger — which would put the consolidation into effect on or before July 1, 2019 — would receive less of a tax benefit: it would begin at eight cents on the dollar, and reduce by two cents on the dollar per year, thus only lasting four years.

Glejzer said the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s (WSESU) CFO “is working out the details of each town’s benefits,” and that information should be made available “soon.”

The WSESU “in some ways [is] a textbook example of what could be a fast-tracked move to consolidation and become a district,” Glejzer said. He said some of the district’s schools “already share substantial resources.”

“We’re really only one step away from a district as it is,” in terms of “how we share resources around Special Education,” and other programs, Glejzer said.

He noted, though, that “one effect is there would not be a Putney School Board.” There would, instead, be one supervisory district board. Glejzer noted that the district is “where all the budgetary pieces would happen.”

Putney could have an advisory board that, Glejzer said, “would function like our school board does now in terms of its relationship to the town and the community, but it would not have a budgetary function.”

Although Putney would have a representative to the putative advisory board, “Brattleboro, being larger, would have three” representatives, Glejzer noted.

He said all towns in the WSESU district have each agreed to form a study group, and decide by Town Meeting if they want to “go for early adoption.”

“It’s a very fast timeline,” Glejzer admitted.

He also said for the district to adopt the fast-track consolidation, all towns in the district must unanimously decide.

“If one town in a district [votes ‘no’], then none of us can do this,” Glejzer said.

A question of choice

School Board member Christopher Irion said his initial concern was “oh no, we’re going to lose the school board,” but he realized “all we’re really doing is separating out the financial purview” over the school, and giving it to the central committee.

School Board Chair Alice Laughlin said she was not so sure of Irion’s assessment.

“That’s debatable,” she said.

“Much of the [school] control is driven by finance,” Selectboard member Josh Laughlin noted, and said that “people’s concern is that, for example, we choose to have all the extras that we have.”

“What happens if the district at large says, ‘we don’t want all these extras,’” he asked.

Another point of concern to some residents is to which schools their children would go under Act 46.

“We choose to not send our children to BAMS,” Glejzer said, referring to the Brattleboro Area Middle School. In Putney, seventh- and eighth-graders attend Putney Central School.

Glejzer said “right now,” district school administrators, including WSESU Superintendent Ron Stahley, say “‘every school is individual, every school has its character,’ so that language is very much there, and I believe them, but what other folks who are pushing back against this quick consolidation are saying is, ‘but you don’t know.’"

The example Glejzer said the opponents offer is schools closing.

“That’s [the] danger in becoming just an advisory board,” School Board Vice-Chair Dylan Devlin said.

Josh Laughlin asked how changes to the school’s population will “play out for consolidation.”

“There’s been this question in Putney for a long time of how dramatically is our student population going to drop,” Josh Laughlin said.

“It hasn’t dropped as dramatically as had initially been proposed,” he noted, “but [the population] is significantly less than it was 20 years ago.”

Laughlin said his concern was if population decreased in 10 years, “are we likely to send our seventh-graders to BAMS?"

“Proponents say you have some protection in the district,” said Putney Central School Principal Herve Pelletier. As it is now, he said, a drop of 30 students in Putney would have a great effect “on our ability to do business,” but a district-wide loss of 30 students “is relatively minor.”

Josh Laughlin wanted to know if Act 46 “guarantee[d] school choice of any sort.”

“The district gets to define what ‘school choice’ means,” Pelletier said.

What are we deciding?

Glejzer noted there are “possible court objections” to aspects of Act 46, but school boards “have to go forward with what you have in front of you.”

“The state could make different decisions later on,” he said, adding, “you can’t wait until they do that.”

One of the benefits of Act 46 the Legislature touts is that, by consolidating school districts, schools can manage declining enrollment and increased student need by becoming more efficient with staffing and expenses.

“I would love to see the draft plan of the alleged efficiencies and really see what that means,” Pelletier said.

“We’re perhaps quite different from many schools in the state of Vermont,” Alice Laughlin said. “We’re able to offer, in a school of 170, things a school of 20 or 15 can’t offer,” she added.

“We know there are challenges in the state that we do not face,” she said, “but we also see our tax [payments] rising pretty dramatically for education.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #329 (Wednesday, October 28, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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