BRATTLEBORO—Members of the unified board of Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) have approved a ballot question that asks voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney whether they want to dissolve the not-even-2-year-old unified school district formed under the state’s eduction-reform law, Act 46.
If voters in the four towns pass the measure during Annual Town Meeting in March, the school district would be no more. Instead, communities would have to establish one or more new districts and elect new school boards.
According to WSESD Chair David Schoales, existing state law allows school districts — even school districts created after a state education-reform law and years of votes, forced mergers, planning, adaptation, consolidation, and change — to divorce each other.
As it happens, all one community must do to leave a school district is vote to do so. Then, under state law, its other member towns must also vote. All communities must unanimously approve any departure.
Advocates of educational reform call the ease with which towns can leave a school district a loophole, and the Legislature could change that law this year.
Therefore, the board needed to decide about putting the dissolution question to the voters sooner rather than later.
Under this current state law, residents in Halifax and Readsboro dissolved their merged Act 46 district last September. Since then, a handful of districts have followed with similar votes.
And on the same night the WSESD board voted to add a divorce question to their communities’ ballots, Westminster voted to leave the district it shares with Athens and Grafton. Both those towns have scheduled their corresponding votes for their respective Annual Town Meetings.
In December, Schoales proposed placing the dissolution question on the March Town Meeting ballot. At a Jan. 5 meeting, board members voted overwhelmingly to put the question before voters. Not allowing voters the choice would run counter to democracy, several members said.
The governance merger that created the WSESD was contentious.
Voters in the four Windham Southeast towns originally voted against merging as required by state law under Act 46. Despite the nay vote, the state invoked the new law, which required unwilling communities to create what many refer to as “forced mergers” — mandated officially by the state Board of Education.
So the communities of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney did just that, and the WSESD officially launched in the summer of 2019.
For community members from both inside and outside the school system who were still galled that the Legislature created Act 46 in the first place, that upcoming vote was envisioned as an escape route.
Yet, while a product of Act 46, the current WSESD is also its own entity. School board members and educators overseeing the district strive to educate students, regardless of structure.
So come March, will voters cast ballots based on past experiences with Act 46? Or will they cast ballots based on the current success or challenges of the existing WSESD?
Objective information on the district’s performance post-merger could help voters make informed decisions.
Unfortunately, there is none — at least not yet.
The 18-month-old WSESD is still young. If it were a student, the district would be too young for prekindergarten, according to the state Agency of Education (AOE), which defines universal pre-k eligibility as ages 3, 4, or 5.
The district’s recent establishment, coupled with the global pandemic that sent students home last March, means that little tangible data exists to help voters measure the current district’s performance.
Jack Hoffman, a senior policy analyst with the Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier-based economic think tank, said in an email that he is gathering data on the Act 46 mergers. The data analysis, however, is farther down the road.
A request to the AOE for information was not answered by press time.
In an email, Windham Southeast Superintendent Andy Skarzynski wrote, “Our primary focus has been on supporting our students and staff throughout this pandemic.”
“Our emphasis as of late has been on the transition to the second semester, when we will have students in our elementary and middle grades in our schools more frequently,” he continued. “Because of this, we have not analyzed as a leadership team the benefits or challenges as a merged district.”
Skarzynski also pointed to another issue with which voters might need to contend at the March polls: What would replace the WSESD if it were dissolved?
“[B]ecause any potential post-dissolution structures have not yet been identified, it would be premature to discuss any impacts on administration, staff, and students,” he wrote.
In the interest of democracy
According to Schoales, school boards lack the authority to vote on their own dissolution or merging. Therefore, the divorce question will appear on the four member towns’ respective town ballots in March rather than on the school district ballots.
The Act 46 mergers still upset many people, Schoales said in an interview with The Commons.
“And I think that the sentiment that was expressed was the same one that the board expressed in deciding to go ahead and ask the towns to warn it,” Schoales said. “Which is that democracy was stymied by an unelected, politically appointed board [the State Board of Education], and they want to try and give democracy another chance.”
Schoales said he couldn’t comment on what structure would replace the WSESD. “We don’t really have a plan,” he said.
“We didn’t take any time to talk about one, partly because it’s really not our question,” he said — it belongs to the voters.
Schoales understands that voters will have questions. Members of the Communications Council, a WSESD board subcommittee, have met about sharing information with the community. If it is appropriate to do so, Schoales said, the board or school administration will arrange for informational meetings.
Schoales listed the creation of each school’s leadership councils — venues at the local level for families and teachers to connect and collaborate — as a positive consequence of merging the local school districts.
He also is proud of the Diversity and Equity Committee, the anti-racism and social justice initiative that the school district implemented in 2019. But, he added, this initiative would probably have happened anyway because the district committed to creating a district-wide anti-racist and social justice culture.
One of the downsides of the centralized structure, he continued, is that it moves the seat of power farther from one’s community.
“Some of the principles and some of the parents are chafing at the loss of voice and autonomy under the new structure,” he said. “[The board is] just reacting really to emerging issues and it takes time. It’s very difficult to provide the kind of voice that the principals are used to, and certainly the parents, are used to having.”
A domino effect
Since Halifax and Readsboro voted to dissolve their school district last year, five other communities — Newbury, Ripton, Tunbridge, Weybridge, and Westminster — have followed suit at the ballot box.
Of these, three voted to stay in their merged districts. Ripton and Westminster voted to leave.
“A gerrymandered district like the Athens/Grafton/Westminster board is hard to manage in terms of it being a logical political entity,” said Jack Bryer, who chairs the Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District board, which oversees schools in Westminster, Athens, and Grafton.
“The schools are nearly 40 minutes away from each other, making it nearly impossible to share staff or move students from one location to another. Such utterly random conglomerations make governance nearly impossible,” Bryer added.
In his opinion, some of the challenges facing local schools trace back to the state.
For example, when calculating education costs, the state uses the concept of equalized pupils, which, according to the Public Assets Institute, “gives less weight to pre-kindergarten pupils and extra weight to students in secondary school, those from economically deprived backgrounds, and those whose first language is not English. The principle behind the weighting is that it costs more to educate students in certain categories.”
The flip side of this equation is that “an elementary school student doesn’t count as a full person when it comes to state funding,” Bryer said. “This effectively drains funds away from small elementary school districts.”
Bryer said that small schools need support because they lack the economy of scale of many larger schools.
Some of the state’s decisions around funding — such as Act 46, which changed the criteria for the AOE’s Small School Grants, or potential legislation around how the state funds special education — are having an outsized impact on small schools, he said.
“If even a couple of families move in or out of very small districts, it can radically throw budgets out of whack and subject a small district to surtax penalties irrespective of how well that district has managed its financial affairs,” he said.
At the same time, withdrawing from a district for a small school is “a risky financial proposition,” Bryer said.
“However, our communities should not have to choose between unwieldy, illogically constructed school districts which make no political or economic sense, and fiscal instability,” he said.
“The state has a constitutional obligation to provide equitable education and a moral obligation to fund it,” he added.
“The best solution is a blend of local control and statewide financing,” Bryer said. “Instead, we see increasing state interference in local governance and a rapidly dropping percentage of fiscal support.”
A mismatched relationship?
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, described Vermont’s education funding system as a mixture of state and local control. This includes Act 46, passed in 2015, which tried to respect that local control by allowing communities to create new districts — and relationships — that served them the best, she said.
“We have a statewide education property tax, and we have local control, and that’s our system,” said Sibilia, who also serves as a member of the River Valleys School Board, a combined district for Dover and Wardsboro. “And I don’t know that it is actually the best way to have things constructed.”
The statewide education funding was instituted to comply with the 1997 landmark case Brigham v. State, where the State Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the disparities in educational opportunities based on local funding of local schools.
Sibilia noted that the heart of Vermont’s education system is the constitutional obligation to provide equitable educational opportunities.
Act 46 had been an opportunity to improve students’ access to more opportunities as schools pooled their resources, she explained. It was a chance to further close the gap between the smaller, poorer districts and the larger, wealthier districts.
One of the benefits Sibilia has witnessed in the new districts is that various long-ignored issues have become “front-burner issues” because additional people have become responsible for dealing with them.
Having a more-coordinated regional or statewide response could address many of the issues that schools face right now regarding financing and educational equity, she said — for example, establishing one statewide district.
But she believes that, while difficult, it is possible to create either a statewide or more regional districts that ensure local voices will be heard. She also doubts that such a solution will ever happen in Vermont.
In the short term, Sibilia said that the state needs to implement the recommendations in the Study of Pupil Weights in Vermont’s Education Funding Formula from the University of Vermont College of Education and Social Sciences, presented to the Legislature last session.
She has introduced a bill, now in the hands of the House Committee on Education, that would put the new pupil weights into effect [see sidebar]. The proposed legislation is designed to correct the financial inequities that contribute to educational inequities.
According to the text of the bill, the formula that the state has used for more than 20 years for statewide education funding “has resulted in many of Vermont’s school districts being overtaxed and underfunded, especially smaller and poorer school districts, resulting in inequities for some of the State’s most vulnerable children.”
“This act is intended to fulfill Vermont’s constitutional mandate to ensure that all students receive substantial equality of educational opportunity throughout the State,” the legislation says.
Sibilia hopes that voters in districts contemplating dissolution will get as much information as needed from the teachers and students who are experiencing the education system firsthand.
Ultimately, the questions to ask are what communities and students will gain by staying together or by breaking apart, she said.
“Because of our constitution and financing, we have that mismatch,” Sibilia said. “That’s what’s going on right now.”