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State Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, left, answers a question March 17 at Putney Central School while Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley looks on.

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State official fields questions over future of local schools

Education Secretary speaks about the details, options, and consequences of controversial education-reform law

PUTNEY—In the sometimes-acrimonious debate over the future of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, there are no easy solutions.

So when state Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe visited the union’s Act 46 Study Committee on March 17, she faced pointed questions about consolidation, finances, school choice, and school closures.

The most-succinct inquiry might have come from Dummerston resident Ruth Barton.

“What happens if this thing don’t work? You got an answer for that, young lady?”

Holcombe declined to offer a specific roadmap for Windham Southeast. Instead, she said repeatedly that school officials all over the state have to take a “hard look” at their structures and come up with a solution that fits their own communities.

“I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. I think there are better answers,” Holcombe said. “And I believe that you, locally, will work toward a better answer. And I hope you do, for the sake of the kids.”

State enrollment still declining

Holcombe’s Agency of Education is tasked with implementing Act 46, the controversial 2015 law that pushes for consolidated school districts in order to save money and equalize student opportunity.

At Putney Central School, Holcombe reiterated the reasons why she believes such reforms are necessary: There is a growing tax burden on an aging population, she said, while school enrollment continues to decline statewide.

“We’re down another 1,200 kids this year,” she said. “We thought we’d hit bottom, but we’re still declining.”

But small schools are a way of life in Vermont, and Holcombe acknowledged seeing a lot of pushback since Act 46 became law. She compared the reaction to the “five stages of grieving.”

“There’s a lot of anger, and I get that,” she said. “Because we do care deeply about our schools. We’re passionate about educating our kids. And our schools have deep connections to our community.”

The connections between small schools and their communities has been one theme in Windham Southeast, which is one of the state’s largest supervisory unions in terms of enrollment. The Brattleboro-based union also includes Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon.

Windham Southeast’s Act 46 Study Committee has taken a close look at the Act 46 “accelerated” merger option, which would involve all of the union’s districts uniting under one board. That option offers the biggest tax breaks but also requires a vote before July 1.

While the committee still is examining an accelerated merger, many members have said that schedule does not appear realistic at this point.

Local deliberations, local results

At the March 17 meeting, Holcombe tried to offer reassurance that mergers and shared services can work.

A clear example, she said, is the Legislature’s consolidation of special-education administration at the supervisory union level — a change that happened prior to Act 46.

“We’re seeing substantially better delivery of [special education] services and much more strategic use of high-value but scarce resources,” she said. “And we’re also seeing substantial savings.”

It’s too early to judge the impact of mergers happening under Act 46. But Holcombe said that themes now emerging across Vermont include additional extracurricular learning opportunities, stronger student-support systems, enhanced professional development, and better retention of teachers and administrative staff.

She stressed, though, that such results — and the methods used to get them — must be the product of local deliberations.

“The best solutions are the ones that you create locally by rolling up your sleeves, coming together as a community and talking about what you care about,” Holcombe said.

Local questions

In Windham Southeast, such discussions have been difficult, and Holcombe took many questions from the study committee and from the audience:

• The most prominent issue might be Vernon’s unique school-choice setup: Starting in seventh grade, the district’s students may attend schools out of the WSESU district, and some town students cross the state line to attend Pioneer Valley Regional School in Massachusetts.

Vernon officials have gotten conflicting advice from the state about whether their town’s version of school choice could continue after a merger with districts that don’t offer such choice.

The answer now seems to be no, and that spells trouble for accelerated-merger talks.

“That’s a choice that we want to keep, because we understand that that’s very important to the parent and the child,” said Deb Hebert, a Vernon school board member.

Holcombe urged “big picture” thinking about long-term goals for local students, but she also acknowledged that difficult choices loom for Vernon residents.

“What Vernon may have to decide is that it doesn’t want to be a part of this union,” she said.

• Worries about eventual school closures also have dogged Windham Southeast consolidation talks.

Holcombe said officials can set up a procedure for deciding on school closures and then write it into a merger’s articles of agreement. But she also said Act 46 is not designed to shut school buildings.

“Given the way the tax rates are going and the demographics are going, we think that small schools have a better chance to stay open and retain that connection to the community within bigger districts,” she said.

• There is conflict in Windham Southeast about continuing to pursue an accelerated merger. Some argue that voters deserve to have a say on the matter, while others think the committee has not spent enough time looking at other options that allow for later votes.

Holcombe acknowledged that state officials didn’t anticipate the “magnitude of interest” they’ve seen for accelerated mergers. She also stressed that, “in many places, it’s not the right choice.”

But Holcombe seemed to support the idea of an accelerated merger vote in Windham Southeast.

“If voters aren’t going to support unification, they’re going to let you know at the polls,” she said.

• Locals also have clashed over the importance of the financial incentives attached to Act 46 school mergers. State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said such incentives cannot be the top priority.

“The reality is, in the Legislature, this bill is all about saving money and lowering property taxes,” Mrowicki said at the March 17 meeting. “When we amended this bill this year, we were two hours into the debate before the word ‘children’ was used. What we need is the reminder that this is not just about money.”

Holcombe supplied that reminder, saying the discussion must focus on educational goals. “The [mergers] that start by focusing on tax incentives tend to go off the rails pretty quickly,” she said.

But she also reminded the study committee and the crowd that there are limits to how much locals can shape the merger process. The idea of “self study” has taken hold in Windham Southeast, and some believe the supervisory union can make the case that little or no change is needed under Act 46.

“You know of our success,” Dummerston School Board member Dan Normandeau told Holcombe. “We have been looked to over the years as a model SU in the state.”

Holcombe said there is room in Act 46 for a variety of school-governance structures. But she argued that the goal is “getting to a place that is as unified as you can be,” and she said she sees room for improvement and greater efficiency in Windham Southeast.

“I think what you have is tremendous opportunity to unify here,” Holcombe said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #349 (Wednesday, March 23, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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