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Ed Board chair touts ‘huge success’ of Act 46

Stephan Morse says that despite challenges, Vermont is making strides toward greater educational equity

DUMMERSTON—Eighteen months after the passage of Act 46, the controversial school-governance law has been a “huge success” and does not require significant revision, state Board of Education Chair Stephan Morse says.

Morse acknowledges that there have been some “challenges” in implementing the law. He also says it’s now clear that school mergers aren’t resulting in big financial savings for schools.

But the Newfane resident believes Vermont is making strides toward greater educational equity under the law. As evidence, Morse cites the number of Act 46 study committees and the number of merger plans that have been approved by the state board and by voters in a relatively short time.

“Clearly, it looks like a matter that was waiting for a solution, and here is a solution that seems to be working across the state,” Morse said.

He added, “my sense is that there’s not going to be any major changes that are going to be made in this legislation.”

Doubts and difficulties

Morse’s optimism, however, may be matched by the skepticism of those who say the law takes an overly aggressive, top-down approach.

“We want to take a serious look at this,” said state Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon and chairman of that town’s school board. “I don’t think there’s a big call for a repeal [of Act 46], but certainly for adjustments to make the process smoother.”

Morse doesn’t have to look far to see Act 46-related strife: In his home county, Windham Southeast officials have struggled with questions about school choice and local control.

At a recent Act 46 meeting in Dummerston, Morse declined to address those specific issues, since the state board soon will consider Windham Southeast’s school-merger plan. But he made note of the supervisory union’s Act 46 difficulties, especially in regards to Vernon’s unique school choice setup that led to the town’s exit from regional merger talks.

For Morse, that’s all the more reason to applaud the work of Windham Southeast’s Act 46 Study Committee. “You’ve faced a lot of challenges, and it’s pretty amazing that you’ve gotten as far as you have as quickly as you have,” he said.

Asserting success

At the Dummerston meeting and in a subsequent interview, Morse used that same argument to assert the success of Act 46 statewide. He said the law has spurred formation of 43 study committees that have examined a variety of merger scenarios.

Those studies have led to school governance changes. Morse said the state board has approved 18 merger applications and is set to consider at least 14 more in the next two months, and he said voters in 58 towns and 14 supervisory unions have OK’d mergers.

“For a year and a half, that’s pretty incredible to deal with this huge, historic public policy issue,” Morse said.

It hasn’t all gone smoothly, as some districts have struggled to find suitable merger plans. For example, the state Agency of Education sent Windham Southwest Supervisory Union back to the Act 46 drawing board a few months ago.

And the results of Act 46 merger votes on Election Day were a mixed bag: Residents in the Addison Northeast and Grand Isle supervisory unions approved new districts, while Barre voters didn’t.

Actual impact?

There have been grumblings, too, about Act 46 not having much impact on education spending. The state’s increasing education tax burden had been cited as one reason to pursue school-governance reform.

Instead, Morse said the state board is seeing merger plans that lead to annual savings between $100,000 and $300,000. “As it turns out ... many of the mergers’ most immediate savings have already been realized under the current system where the supervisory unions have already brought things together, coordinating services, bulk purchasing, etc.,” he said.

But overall, Morse — who is slated to leave his post at the end of February — says the state is headed in the right direction. From the state board’s point of view, he said, “this major legislation is all about providing equitable education” — not saving money.

“We need a system that assures us that every Vermont student has the same educational opportunities whether you live in a small mountain town or you live in a large Vermont city,” Morse said. “With larger districts, more equitable education will be available for all the students.”

Some remain unconvinced. At the Dummerston meeting where Morse spoke, resident Ines McGillion said she’s not sure what educational equality eventually will look like — or what it will cost.

“You’re asking small towns to trade the bird in the hand for a bird in the bush that we cannot see,” McGillion said.

Seeking efficiency

Morse argued that bigger districts lead to educational efficiency. He said merged districts have more opportunities to share students, staff, and resources; to eliminate administrative redundancies; and to improve communication.

Morse said he understands Vermont’s tradition of local control over education matters.

“But this legislation isn’t about tradition or history,” he said. “It’s really about providing the most equal education we can for all of our children.”

In response to questions about the state’s essentially forcing all schools to consider mergers, Morse said such decisions — at least initially — are made at the local level. Act 46 mandates that the state board eventually draw up a merger plan for those districts that haven’t acted on their own.

“Obviously, that is not going to work as well as local people making those decisions,” Morse said. “That’s why I really encourage you to work together even though you may have differences, and see if you can work things out.”

Some Act 46 opponents are holding out hope that the law will be modified, at least to give schools more time to consider mergers.

The next deadline for voters to consider merger proposals is July 1, 2017, and the state board is supposed to issue its final, statewide school-governance plan by the end of November, 2018.

’Difficult decisions’

Morse sees no need for wholesale change in Act 46. He said he wouldn’t oppose a time extension but sees no need for it, because “these difficult decisions aren’t going to get any easier in a year.”

Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane and a member of the House Education Committee in her first term, said she’s “still not seeing a big push to make substantive changes to Act 46.”

There’s some concern, Long said, that even a relatively minor change such as a deadline extension could cause problems for schools planning a merger vote before the July 1 deadline.

“Some of these study committees have been working for more than a year, and they fear a delay could slow or even halt the momentum they have,” Long said.

Though some towns are struggling with Act 46, many schools “continue to struggle with declining enrollment, loss of educational opportunities, and increasing costs, and that should [also] be taken into consideration,” Long said.

Hebert sees things differently, and not just because of Vernon’s school choice concerns. He maintains that there hasn’t been enough time to adequately plan many school mergers.

“For people that are involved in the study committees, they’ve worked hard and they’re doing the best job they can,” Hebert said. “But you cannot exclude people with different ideas or try a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Aside from providing more time under Act 46, Hebert said he also wants to explore loosening school choice restrictions among merged districts and modifying the number of districts needed for a “side-by-side” merger so a school like Vernon could stand on its own.

For now, though, school boards can’t assume there will be changes in Act 46. And that has some worried.

“If we get into this [merger], there’s no exit door — that’s the scariest part of it,” said Ruth Barton, a Dummerston resident who serves on the Brattleboro Union High School District No. 6 board.

That’s why Act 46 study committees are so important, Morse replied.

“The community very thoughtfully goes through the process and figures out, what is the best way to address the educational needs of the area,” he said. “Hopefully, whatever decision you make, you don’t have to worry about that exit door.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #386 (Wednesday, December 7, 2016). This story appeared on page A4.

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