TOWNSHEND—A primary goal of Act 46, Vermont’s new education-governance law, is to “provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide.”
But the principal at one Windham County school said she believes the statute may do the opposite.
Dorinne Dorfman, who leads Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, is sounding that alarm both locally and in Montpelier, urging lawmakers to slow down and take another look at the socio-economic impacts of school redistricting.
Specifically, Dorfman said she is worried about the potential fracturing of the Leland & Gray union district and its effect on vulnerable students and on the school itself.
More generally, she is concerned about widening – rather than narrowing – the achievement gap between low-income students and their more-affluent peers.
“My greatest fear is that we’re going to have a two-tier system in Vermont where there are schools that provide lavish programs ... and there will be other schools with high concentrations of students with special needs and low-income backgrounds,” Dorfman said.
Act 46, approved in the 2015 session, is state lawmakers’ attempt to address persistent problems: Educational costs and taxes continue to rise even as enrollment drops; and some Vermont students in smaller or poorer schools don’t have access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by others.
The law imposed a spending-increase threshold that is designed to curb tax hikes in the short term. More significantly, Act 46 makes a strong push for new, larger school governance structures that would force many smaller, independent districts to merge in the next few years.
Act 46 has provoked controversy. Its spending thresholds are under fire, with Gov. Peter Shumlin calling for legislative changes.
And even as proponents cite the financial flexibility and greater services available in larger, merged school districts, critics – including Dorfman – wonder whether the state is on the right track when it comes to the law’s push for redistricting.
“I think we do need to step back,” Dorfman said.
Leland & Gray is part of the sprawling Windham Central Supervisory Union, which features 12 boards and eight schools in an area that is rugged and, for the most part, sparsely populated. But the regional middle and high school has a relatively solid base in its five union towns – Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham.
It is unclear, though, what the future of the union might be under Act 46. For instance, like many school boards across the state, Jamaica officials are weighing their options. Those include new arrangements that might allow school choice.
In minutes from the Jamaica board’s Oct. 20 meeting, it’s noted that some attendees expressed interest in alternate educational structures. One such commenter said that, if Jamaica Village Elementary School and Leland & Gray “are not working for my children, I would like a choice, an option about where to send my child.”
Another said that the lack of high-school choice is an “obstacle” for those who might otherwise choose to live in Jamaica.
At the same meeting, documents show, two board members from the private Mountain School at Winhall reported that their facility would be able to accommodate all Jamaica Village School students if that school would close.
Documents show that four merger options are under consideration in Jamaica, and only one keeps Leland & Gray as the town’s high school. All of the options would involve uniting with other involved towns under one school board.
• Creating a pre-K-through-6 district with the four other L & G union towns. Jamaica Village School would remain open, and Leland & Gray would be the district’s high school.
• Creating a pre-K-through-6 district with Dover and Wardsboro; keeping Jamaica Village School open; and offering choice for grades 7-12.
• Creating a choice-only district with Winhall, Stratton, and possibly others. Jamaica’s elementary would close, and there would be school choice from pre-K through grade 12.
• Joining a pre-K-through-12 district that includes Flood Brook School, a K-8 public school in Londonderry. Jamaica Village School would remain open in part or in whole; the town’s students would attend Flood Brook for grades 7 and 8; and there would be school choice for grades 9 to 12.
The Jamaica board has taken no action. Further Act 46 discussion is expected at a Dec. 15 meeting, when the board will form at least four committees to conduct further research, Chairwoman Stephanie Amyot said.
“We hope to dispel misinformation and lay the groundwork for productive discussion, research, and eventually, a proposal that our town can be comfortable voting on,” Amyot said.
Dorfman, who touts Leland & Gray’s test scores and its co-curricular offerings, is warning of “substantial” negative impacts if Jamaica elects to close its elementary school and drop out of the current union district. In addition to Leland & Gray potentially losing students, Dorfman said she worries about supporting those who would remain – including many school-choice students who come to Leland & Gray with special needs.
In Act 46 testimony prepared for the House Education Committee, Dorfman argued that school-choice research and demographic trends at Leland & Gray “demonstrate that students and parents select schools based on social class, with more affluent families choosing those in higher-income areas.”
The exodus of the union district’s students via expanded school choice would “reduce our advanced programs, increase our costs, lower school achievement, and dim students’ futures,” Dorfman told legislators on Nov. 18.
Dorfman also is envisioning a future in which Leland & Gray no longer exists due to Act 46 changes. She claims L & G students would be “scattered and ignored in distant schools” as a result.
“Few could stay after school due to lack of transportation, and their parents wouldn’t drive 60 miles round-trip to support them,” Dorfman wrote. “Their graduation and college admission rates would plummet and their victimization and participation in criminal activities may increase. Their talents that Leland & Gray cultivates would wane without their caring teachers as mentors and coaches and neighbors.”
Such scenarios sharply diverge with state Rep. Oliver Olsen’s views on Act 46 and its potential impacts on Windham Central Supervisory Union.
While Dorfman has been critical of Olsen in some of her writings, the Londonderry independent – whose three-county district includes Jamaica – said he is not pushing for that town’s school board to choose any particular path.
“My only position is that they should have a voice and that they should have a discussion, which they are,” Olsen said.
Olsen does not agree that the exodus of one town would necessarily spell doom for the Leland & Gray union. He said “there are lots of different scenarios” and that the union may look entirely different after the Act 46 process plays out.
Despite the debate over Act 46, Olsen said he remains a believer in the merits of forming larger school districts in Vermont. Finding the right fit for the state’s schools “is going to require folks to move outside the comfort zone of what they know today,” Olsen said.
That does not necessarily mean an expansion of school choice: Olsen said Act 46 does not change existing law regarding choice in Vermont. But in response to Dorfman’s concerns, Olsen points out that four of the five towns he represents – the exception being Jamaica – already offer high-school choice.
“The students I represent in those four towns – students of all means and all abilities – are served incredibly well,” Olsen said.