Brandon-area schools eye unification options

BRANDON — The Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union is beginning the first phase of compliance with a state school merger mandate, with the Brandon-area school boards voting last week to use state funds and form a study group to consider its options.
The decision came following a well-attended multi-school board and public meeting at Otter Valley Union High School on June 17, where RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins explained the meaning of the new education consolidation law, Act 46, and RNeSU Business Manager Brenda Fleming outlined RNeSU’s options with an in-depth presentation.
The Executive Board of the Addison Central Supervisory Union in the Middlebury area also recently began exploring the impact of the new education law on its nine schools. Officials there hope that residents will vote as soon as next March on a proposal to form a single school board that would have oversight over a single education budget for what would be a consolidated K-12 district (See story in last Thursday’s Addison Independent).
Act 46, formerly known as bill H.361, was crafted by the House Education Committee and passed by both houses of the Vermont Legislature last month. It seeks to consolidate Vermont’s 272 school districts (ranging in size from as few as 31 students in Sudbury to 3,958 in Burlington) to 50 or 60 districts in order to create a more efficient system that lowers per pupil spending by raising student numbers.
The fear for many is that small schools will close, and the local control that Vermonters hold dear may be altered when small towns have representation on larger school district boards but don’t have their own autonomous school board.
Over time, the state hopes that the merger mandate will turn the tide of rising education costs and property taxes, which are closely tied to a town’s per pupil spending costs.
Fleming explained that under the new law, every supervisory union has between now and July 1, 2019, to establish a new governance structure. Depending on which track is chosen, state legal and transition grants and tiered tax incentives are available to the districts. Those that make the changes most quickly receive the biggest incentives, and those that make no voluntary attempt to restructure by 2017 will not be eligible for any tax incentives and will lose their state Small School Grants.
There are three tracks, or phases, to consolidation available under Act 46:
Phase One: Accelerated Merger
•  $20,000 consulting/legal grant for districts creating a study group to consider merger options.
•  Upon passage by all towns a $130,000, one-time transition grant.
•  Tax incentives for 5 years: an education tax break of 10 cents/8 cents/6 cents/4 cents/2 cents during those years.
Phase Two: Voluntary Merger of currently existing RED (Regional Education Districts)
•  $20,000 consulting/legal grant for districts creating study group to consider merger options.
•  $130,000 one–time transition grant upon passage by all towns.
•  Tax Incentives for 4 years: 8 cents/6 cents/4 cents/2 cents.
Phase Three: Self-Assessment, Quality Reviews & Statewide Plan
•  Districts that do not engage in voluntary structural changes by July 1, 2017 will not be able to secure tax incentives.
After July 1, 2019, these districts will only be able to retain their Small School Grants if the State Board of Education determines they are geographically isolated of if they can demonstrate academic excellence and operational efficiency.
After July 1, 2019, these districts will also lose any 3.5 percent average daily membership hold-harmless protections.
School districts (including union districts) may merge to form a Unified Union School District, responsible for all grades (PreK-12). Typically, Regional Education District (RED) criteria include a minimum student count of 1,250 or a merger of four or more school districts.
There are currently a total of 1,450 students in RNeSU schools.
•  Groups of districts that do not meet the size requirements may petition the State Board of Education for a waiver.
Fleming explained that RNeSU is not configured as a single preferred district because it includes 11 districts with two types of “preferred districts”:
1.      Otter Valley member towns with five towns operating PreK-6, one town with PreK-6 choice, and six town operating grade 7-12 union high school.
2.      Barstow member towns, with two towns operating PreK-8 and two towns paying tuitions for grades 9-12.
Therefore, RNeSU is not eligible for the Phase One Accelerated Merger incentives, but it is eligible for the Phase Two voluntary merger incentives. Also, because it is an existing supervisory union, it can combine to two unified union districts without meeting the student or district minimum student limits.
That means that one new district would combine districts offering choice in a set of grades. The other would operate schools providing education in all grades.
Certain rules would apply to both types of preferred districts:
•  The districts would be eligible for RED incentives.
•  Each new district must be formed by the merger of at least two existing districts.
•  Each new district must meet all of the criteria for the formation of an RED except for the size criteria.
•  One of the new districts must provide education in all elementary and secondary grades by operating one or more schools.
•  The new districts taken together must satisfy the size criteria for an RED.
•  It is not necessary for every district in a supervisory union to participate in the merger process.
Once the study committee is formed, RNeSU will avail itself of the $20,000 state consulting services reimbursement grant, that create a plan to form the regional education district and prepare a report. A cost-benefit analysis will be done, and the plan will be submitted to the State Board of Education for approval.
Then, the plan must go to a vote in all the involved districts. If voters in a district vote not to join the new RED, the remaining members of the new RED can operate as a modified union school district and still receive the incentives. The remaining district can stay in the supervisory union but will be considered an “orphan” district. Fleming said right now, it is not clear what the ramifications of that would be.
Fleming said it would take about a year to complete the study and reports needed to create a merger plan and get approval, roughly by July 2016.
She said that means district voters could be considering the merger question on the Town Meeting Day ballot in March 2017. If approved, the new school district would be operational by July 1, 2019, meeting the state deadline for Phase Two.
The law addresses the concern regarding closing schools. No schools will be forced to close within the first four years of consolidation. Also, regarding employees and contracts, seniority lists will be merged by employment date.
Collins said the RNeSU Executive Committee will appoint the study group members in August, and the group will start meeting and set a meeting schedule in September
The RNeSU Board approved the following motion:
“The board agrees to collaborate with any and all interested RNeSU member districts to participate in a study committee to explore merger options, challenges and opportunities under H.361 culminating in a study committee report to the boards and communities; and to apply for an Agency of Education Merger Grant per Vermont Statutes…”
Collins said she is she considers the new law an opportunity for RNeSU and its schools.
“I think this law gives us a great deal of opportunity to be creative and design something that works for our communities,” she said. “If we act on it soon enough, we can control our own fate and value our community’s needs if we can come together and think about what we want.”

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