DUMMERSTON—Dummerston took its turn debating Act 46, the state’s new school governance bill, at the Oct. 27 School Board meeting.
If this first public discussion is any indication, the road may not be long — the first deadline schools have to make a decision is July 1, 2016 — but it will be bumpy.
In addition to the five school board members — Christian Avard, Katey Everest, Richard Mills, Dan Normandeau, and Amy Wall — Dummerston School Principal Jo Carol Ratti sat at the board table along with Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) Superintendent Ron Stahley and Business Administrator Frank Rucker.
Although there only a handful of audience members were in attendance, nearly all expressed numerous concerns and asked a variety of questions.
A thick vein of skepticism ran through the proceedings, sometimes coming from those at the board table. Many questioned the need for Act 46, why the bill was pushed through so rapidly, and if it will solve the problems Vermont’s Agency of Education (AOE) says it will.
Why so fast?
Some school board members, and members of the public who attended the meeting, expressed alarm at how little time they have to make a crucial decision on two things that carry a great deal of emotional weight: children and money.
The AOE has given towns a deadline of July 1, 2016, to opt in to the “accelerated” merger.
The three-hour-long meeting — about eight months before the first deadline — was the first opportunity Dummerston residents had to question and give comment to the school board and members of the WSESU, but it was not the only item on the evening’s agenda.
Sam Farwell, in attendance, told the board he looks forward to them presenting to the public about Act 46 rather than being invited to a school board meeting where Act 46 is one item on the agenda among many.
School Board Chair Amy Wall explained the district-wide study committee, soon to be established, “will evaluate the feasibility” of the AOE’s three structures and advise which the district should pursue: the accelerated or the conventional merger, or the alternative structure.
“That’s when the public information meetings will happen,” Wall said.
Farwell told the school board he would like to see that expressed in the meeting minutes: “More public input meetings.”
From the board table, Dan Normandeau said he did not approve of the school board’s timeline thus far, and added, “I’ve been incredibly frustrated that we haven’t met and studied this.”
He said, “We really need to get going on this [as a school board] … we need to evaluate what is the right thing for Dummerston children.”
“It’s frustrating for us,” Stahley said, noting the AOE “keeps promising information, but we haven’t gotten it.”
Stahley said, at this point, all they can do is make the study groups, get the information, “plug the information in, and pick which model we’ll use.”
Other districts in the state “are doing the same thing we are: waiting for information,” Stahley lamented, and added all districts are on the same timeline established by Act 46’s statutes.
“Until we get some real data from the state, [Business Administrator] Frank [Rucker] can’t plug anything into the model to figure out the tax savings,” Stahley said.
“Unclear, incomplete information has been used to date,” Dan Normandeau told The Commons later by telephone. “I’d like to see that fixed going forward so we can make a good, intelligent decision about what is best.”
Will schools close?
One point of concern was about the fate of Dummerston School, which serves 170 pupils.
There was some talk, prior to the AOE issuing the document “Clarification on Act 46 Size Requirements” [education.vermont.gov/documents/edu-act46-size-requirement-clarification.pdf], that smaller schools and districts were in jeopardy and would need to merge until they reached the magic number of 900 students.
“There’s no thinking this consolidation would close any schools,” Stahley assured attendees, noting the WSESU has 2,600 students in the district, and the “new district” under Act 46 would be governed by a pre-K through 12 board.
Some members of the audience did not seem satisfied with that answer and questioned how local control could be maintained under a “super-board” that governed all 19 schools in the WSESU district.
Kristina Naylor pointed out that Dummerston would only seat one representative on the super-board.
“What if Dummerston enrollment went down and the super-board said, ‘Merge Putney and Dummerston’?” Naylor asked. “It’s the responsibility of the school board that I voted for to think about what’s best for Dummerston.”
Losing local control
“What percentage of Dummerston voters have school-age children?” audience member Ines McGillion asked rhetorically. She surmised the answer was “very few."
McGillion said her concern was that townspeople would see the promise of tax savings, and vote only from that perspective, ignoring the concerns of those with children in Dummerston’s school.
“There goes local control of our school,” she said.
Brattleboro, with more members on the super-board, would control the decisions, attendee Paul Normandeau worried.
“People can’t understand the Brattleboro Union High School budget because it reads like the national defense budget,” Normandeau said, motioning with his fingers several inches apart. “They throw up their hands and leave it to other people to figure out.”
“At first, [Act 46] was promoted as a tax-saving proposal,” Paul Normandeau said, “but by the time it got down to the street,” that seemed to have changed.
Paul Normandeau noted “our supervisory union already does a great job with the things Act 46 purports to do."
In a follow-up phone conversation with The Commons, School Board Member Dan Normandeau expressed his concerns with Dummerston handing over its school board reins to a “super-board.”
“If we get into consolidation and dismantle our board, it will be very, very unlikely that it can be put back together,” he said.
“The study committee needs to look at that,” he added.
“I don’t like that we’re directed down a path toward an Act 46 merger when the act says we don’t have to do that,” he said, adding, “especially when we may not be able to regain our status."
Will Act 46 save money?
“What’s the supervisory union’s opinion on money savings under Act 46?” attendee Beverly Kenney asked.
Stahley answered by noting the special education sharing saved $300,000 throughout the district. One of the state’s arguments for implementing Act 46 is that, by consolidating school districts, services can be shared more easily.
He also pointed out Dummerston “is supposed to get Title I remediation, but it’s too small so it doesn’t qualify,” suggesting that school consolidation may change that.
The U.S. Department of Education established Title I, part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, to provide funding to schools with high percentages of students coming from low-income families.
Stahley said some WSESU towns, such as Guilford, should have Head Start and other preschool programs but “they can’t afford it right now."
“We have impediments now to equity [in educational opportunity] because of some very small towns” and their limited resources, Stahley said.
With Act 46, “I think we’d certainly save resources, but, more importantly, we’d have a better product,” he said.
“I worry about the future of Vermont,” Kenney told those sitting at the school board table, because the state’s “tax status is unfriendly.”
Kenney, who, with her husband, Ernie, owns the KOA Campground, said she wants net tax savings without sacrificing a quality education in Vermont.
Wall told Kenney Act 46 promises property tax rate reductions, but Dan Normandeau countered those savings “are very low — 10 cents on the dollar” for districts choosing the accelerated merger option. Districts choosing the conventional merger would see even less savings on their property taxes.
“’Accelerated’ is a minuscule amount of savings,” audience member Molly Stoner said, adding she cautions against “rushing into a huge decision with long-term repercussions.”
“It’s clearly not an obviously big tax break,” Farwell observed. He said that his concern is that, “if the impetus is saving taxpayers money, it’s missing the mark.” In exchange for this, he added, “we lose our local stake in the game.
“Consolidation itself doesn’t guarantee equity. A strong argument can be made that a strong school board guarantees equity,” he said.