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Lawmaker fields questions on school consolidation act

LINCOLN — Community members brought questions straight to the source last week, when the Lincoln Community School Board hosted a question-and-answer session on the new Vermont law encouraging school consolidation with a lawmaker who helped shepherd Act 46 through the Legislature.
“We thought that a community forum on an important piece of legislation like this is always just a good starting point for any community going through changes,” said Rebecca Otey, Lincoln Community School Board chair.
As chair of the House Committee on Education, Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, was key in developing the school-district unification legislation. Act 46, signed into law last spring, seeks to rein in school costs while providing greater equity in terms of quality and variety of education for all Vermont students.
The legislation tries to balance the need to maintain local control while moving schools statewide toward greater economies of scale — a difficult balance in a rural state, in which small towns cherish small schools as the heart of their communities.
With its small class size, high student-teacher ratios, and high per pupil spending, Vermont consistently ranks in the top five states nationwide in national assessments of educational proficiency.
At present most Vermont schools are also their own school district with their own board and separately voted budget, resulting in 277 school districts for Vermont’s 303 public schools. These school districts are further organized within Vermont’s 46 supervisory unions. At its simplest, Act 46 asks Vermont’s 277 school districts to restructure themselves into more efficient, pre-K–12 school districts that serve at least 900 students and vote a unified budget.
Act 46 awards greater financial incentives to those districts that successfully meet deadlines for an accelerated merger than for those that meet deadlines for what the Agency of Education is calling a “conventional merger.” Accelerated mergers must be approved by the electorate before July 1, 2016, and operational on or before July 1, 2017. Conventional mergers must be approved by the electorate before July 1, 2017, and operational on or before July 1, 2019. Proposals for alternative structures are due to the Vermont State Board of Education by Nov. 30, 2017. By November 2018, the Board of Education will issue plans for schools that fail to address Act 46 or meet these deadlines.
Attendees at the Aug. 31 community forum engaged Sharpe for close to two hours with a broad spectrum of questions about Act 46 and how it applies to the Lincoln community.
Many questions centered around the nuts and bolts of how to meet Act 46 restructuring guidelines and timelines. Some attendees wondered if the tax incentives for districts choosing the accelerated timeline wouldn’t rush schools toward unification structures without fully considering how to best educate students. Others asked if the bill itself had been crafted to put property owners’ demands for lower tax bills ahead of the kids’ needs for quality education. Some asked if school district unification meant school closures.
Another line of questions asked if school district unification meant consolidating into existing supervisory unions only or if other structures were allowable. Other questions arose about preserving school choice. Many noted the ways that the five towns already work together and wondered if reunification was truly necessary. Again and again attendees asked how to best proceed to get the best education for the community’s children.
Said one attendee, “This seems to be a bill that really is about saving money. And I get that, and I understand that that’s a real goal for people who are hurting. But, boy, the priority doesn’t feel good in terms of what could be possible to give that extra attention to kids.”
Again and again, Sharpe stressed that while addressing taxpayer concerns, the law is equally designed to improve the overall quality of public education and address existing gaps and inequities within Vermont’s pre-K–12 system.
“As you move forward with these difficult conversations, think about the kids,” Sharpe emphasized.
Sharpe gave the example of a school that was so small its valedictorian couldn’t gain admission to the University of Vermont and take advantage of the full-ride Green and Gold Scholarship UVM offers to all Vermont public high school valedictorians because that student had been unable to take the high school courses that UVM required. In another example, Sharpe discussed how a music or foreign language instructor or other specialist could more affordably be shared within a larger unified district.
He stressed that the legislation had built-in flexibility for allowing each town to investigate and decide what larger governance structure might best serve its needs and encouraged not just Lincoln but all towns studying pathways to district unification to think outside the box about what defined their community.
“The bill leaves restructuring up to local control and local vision,” Sharpe said. “Think about erasing the supervisory union lines and think about what’s the best way to arrange a school district in this region that delivers the best education to students for the most reasonable cost. Think about that and allow yourself to expand your idea of what a community is. It might be that it makes more sense for the mountain towns of the spine of the Green Mountains to join together in a school district. I don’t want to preclude what the best decision is for Lincoln.”
An attendee asked about creating a single county-wide school district, and Sharpe said that although an earlier draft of the bill asking for one school district per county had been rejected as too restrictive, local communities could choose to embrace that approach if they thought it best served their students.
ACT 46 IN THE COUNTY
Across Addison County, the three supervisory unions and the communities within them are moving at different paces in the school governance restructuring process mandated by Act 46.
In the Vergennes area, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union is currently seeking volunteers for its Act 46 Study Committee (deadline for volunteers is Monday, Sept. 7).
Addison Central Supervisory Union officials in Middlebury formed the ACSU Charter Committee earlier this summer and the ACSU is on track to qualify for the accelerated merger and its concomitant larger financial incentives. The ACSU Charter Committee plans to draft a unification charter by December to forward to the State Board of Education.
In the Bristol area, Dawn Griswold, chair of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union and Mount Abraham Union High School boards, said all of the boards representing the individual schools in the district have approved the creation of a union-side committee to study Act 46. The heads of the various ANeSU schools and the ANeSU Executive Committee met in early August to discuss Act 46 and its potential impact on school governance and operations. ANeSU school boards are tentatively slated to meet together Sept. 24 to investigate options for merger.
“We are all in the early stages of our work, but committed to the work and I am hopeful that we will gather momentum as we move forward,” said Griswold, who noted that the Monkton school board has invited Sharpe to attend its next meeting to discuss Act 46.
In a follow-up conversation after the Lincoln community forum, Sharpe stressed that it was important for each community to move ahead at a pace that best serves its needs and its situation.
“Some districts were already poised to do this,” said Sharpe. “They were already recognizing the advantages of a larger school district, so they were ready to go.”
ANeSU has dealt with ongoing teacher contract negotiations and a no-confidence vote of its superintendent in the past year.
“For Mt. Abe’s district, I think it is rushing to try to get in on the accelerated plan,” Sharpe said. “The conventional plan still has incentive in it. It is still a valid pathway. They sacrifice one year of tax advantages by going more slowly, but I think that’s probably appropriate because this district is not poised and ready to go. They have some conflicts and crisis in the district other than Act 46 restructuring. But the conventional pathway is certainly open, and that’s much more gradual. That’s a three-year process not a one-year process. And there’s certainly time for the five-town district to come together over a two- or three-year period rather than a six or eight-month period.
“It’s a lot about leadership,” Sharpe concluded. “You see the young, dynamic leadership in Middlebury and Addison Central is really making a difference in that community. And you see the new superintendent in Addison Northwest really making a difference. So much of this is about leadership and helping these communities move forward.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

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