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Lawmaker: Enthusiasm growing for Act 46

WILMINGTON—After a somewhat rocky start, state Rep. Dave Sharpe believes he and his fellow lawmakers are finding a much more receptive audience for Vermont’s new school-governance law.

The House Education Committee chairman does have some lingering concerns about Act 46: One controversial element of the law — a variable budget-increase threshold — may soon be “tweaked,” Sharpe said.

The Bristol Democrat also acknowledged that he’s increasingly concerned about some smaller districts with unique education structures being left out of the Act 46 process and becoming “orphan” school districts.

But overall, Sharpe believes Act 46 will work to reduce spending and increase educational opportunity. And Sharpe said school directors all around Vermont are becoming more willing to make it work.

“I’ve seen, more recently, a much greater willingness to look at what the possibilities are and come up with some creative ideas. So I’m excited by that,” Sharpe said after an informational meeting Friday evening in Wilmington. “And if communities do that work, that’s the most important part of Act 46.”

The statute, formulated by the Vermont Legislature during the 2015 session, is aimed at cutting school costs while also providing more-equitable learning opportunities. Its biggest impact comes in pushing school districts to seek mergers with their neighbors — governance changes that must take effect no later than 2019.

School officials can follow a variety of paths toward creating larger districts, and mergers are not technically required under Act 46. But those school boards that do nothing risk having the state Board of Education determine their fate.

At a meeting last Friday organized by state Reps. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, and Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, Sharpe ran through the justifications for the new law — factors such as declining student enrollment that has not been accompanied by reductions in school staffing and spending, leading to ever-increasing property taxes.

Sharpe believes bigger districts will create more efficiency, allowing for cost savings and flexibility in how staff and students are assigned to schools. That can lead to more educational equity for students, even at small schools, Sharpe said.

“We’re asking citizens and school board members to think about the possible — think about what is the right thing to do for educating students in your communities and across the state,” Sharpe told a crowd of about 50 at Wilmington’s Memorial Hall.

There’s no shortage of thinking going on in schools and town halls across Vermont, with Manwaring remarking that “every one of these discussions is pushing all of us outside of our comfort zones.” And the spending threshold in Act 46 — the short-term mechanism meant to keep districts from raising their budgets above a certain, state-defined level from year to year — is a provision that has caused particularly acute discomfort.

Sharpe says the threshold often is called a cap and shouldn’t be labeled as such, as districts remain free to spend as much as they want. But Act 46 penalizes those districts where increases in per-pupil spending exceed the threshold, essentially double-taxing every dollar in excess of that amount.

While not questioning the logic behind the spending threshold, Sharpe wonders whether those limits — which vary from district to district — may be too restrictive as they are currently constituted.

“There’s fairly widespread concern that school boards will not be able to stay under the high-spending threshold,” Sharpe said in an interview after the Nov. 6 forum. “If they don’t, it will just mean higher taxes for our citizens. That’s not the goal here. The goal is to reduce taxes on our citizens. So if high-spending thresholds are not serving the purpose they were intending to serve, then we ought to [take another look] at them.”

Sharpe said the House Education Committee is scheduled to meet Nov. 18, and he said discussion of possible changes to that portion of the law will be on the agenda. He declined to get into specific, proposed fixes.

“There are five or six ideas that are being worked on and I hope will be able to be presented on the 18th,” he said.

Another of Sharpe’s worries goes to the heart of the new law’s school-merger push. Though Act 46 was an attempt to craft a merger structure that can work for all districts, Sharpe said there remains the potential for “orphans” — small districts that may not be able to find feasible partners.

“We’re very concerned that some of these small districts might be left out of the process,” Sharpe said.

The problem is “bigger than I initially thought,” Sharpe added after the Wilmington meeting. “I knew that schools were varied — 13 different kinds of structures throughout the state — so I knew that there were going to be some issues. But when I started doing these reports here in the southern part of the state, I came to realize how much of a factor it is in the state — that like districts don’t abut each other.”

While it’s too early to say whether any Windham County districts could be “orphaned” in the Act 46 process, the issue has come up.

For instance, Marlboro is the only K-8 district in Windham Central Supervisory Union. One merger scenario under discussion in that union would unite, via a “side-by-side” merger process, the five Leland & Gray union towns and, separately, two K-6 schools — leaving Marlboro and Stratton, a district without a school, out of the mix.

A Marlboro representative at Friday’s meeting said there is widespread support in town for keeping the junior high school, leading board members to look outside Windham Central for merger options.

In Windham Southwest Supervisory Union, Searsburg is in the same boat as Stratton — the town has a school board but no school, with parents able to choose where to send their children. Jacki Murano, Searsburg’s school board chairwoman, said there is strong sentiment in town for keeping K-12 choice.

“We’d love to stay in Windham Southwest if we can, but at this point, it doesn’t seem that there is anybody that fits,” Murano said.

Searsburg could look to other “non-operating” districts as merger partners: Act 46 says that, after July 1, 2015, merging districts “do not need to be contiguous or within the same supervisory union.” In fact, there has been mention of Searsburg talking with Stratton and Winhall — three non-operating districts that lie in three different supervisory unions.

And, in addition to the prescribed merger processes set forth by the state, there remains the possibility that districts can avoid orphan status by proposing a customized, alternate governance structure for state review by Nov. 30, 2017. Sharpe noted that “the state Board of Education has the ultimate authority” on such matters.

A school district, he said, “could go and say, ’Look, we’ve tried. We’ve talked with this town and that town and we’ve looked at different structures, we’ve been creative. These are some of the ideas that we’ve had meetings about, and we just could not come to a point where we could meet the goals of Act 46. And we want to stay the same as we are.’”

“The state Board of Education has the authority to say, ‘You’re right. You did the work, and we respect that work, and we’re going to go along with your suggestion,’” Sharpe said.

The point, though, is that officials want school boards to fully explore all merger possibilities before arriving at such a conclusion.

Sharpe said he respects districts that do their homework and can’t find a suitable partner. But, he added, “I don’t respect so much the people who just dig in their heels and say, ’We’re not going to do anything.’”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #331 (Wednesday, November 11, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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