Eric Davis: Act 46 looming as election issue

Act 46, the school consolidation bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year, will be a major issue in 2016, both in local elections on establishing new consolidated school districts and in the statewide race for governor.
The act provides property tax reduction incentives to newly consolidated districts that receive voter approval by July 1, 2016. While some incentives will be available to districts that consolidate after that date, the prospect of a 10-cent reduction in property taxes is leading several districts to accelerate planning for consolidation votes.
These districts, including the towns in the Addison Central Supervisory Union, hope to have proposed charters for new consolidated districts on the ballot for Town Meeting Day on March 1. Australian ballot turnout that day will be much higher than usual, because the Vermont presidential primary will be held on March 1. With presidential contests in both the Democratic and Republican parties, primary turnout should be strong.
It is too early to project how voters will respond to consolidation votes, in the ACSU and in other districts across Vermont. However, the statute requires that a consolidated district must be approved by every town in the proposed district in order to go into effect.
This will pose a particular challenge to districts such as the ACSU, where one town (Middlebury) has a majority of the voters and students, and would have a majority of the members of the proposed new district board. A negative vote in any one of the six other towns in the ACSU district would defeat the proposal.
Some voters in the outlying towns may be concerned that a Middlebury-dominated board could vote to close their local elementary school over their objections, especially if the small school has a higher cost per pupil than other, larger elementary schools in the district. A requirement written into the new district’s charter for a two-thirds super-majority board vote to close a school might help alleviate this concern.
Act 46 is also shaping up as a major issue in both the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor. On the Democratic side, House Speaker Shap Smith is a strong supporter of Act 46, which passed the House under his leadership. He says that Act 46 will give school boards tools to respond to unsustainable cost increases, and will spread educational opportunities more widely, to all students within a consolidated district.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne opposes Act 46. He says the deadlines established by the act are unrealistic and will cause school districts to make hurried decisions. He also says Act 46 takes a “one size fits all” approach that does not reflect the quality of education currently offered in some small community schools.
The third Democratic candidate, Sue Minter, supports the general goals of Act 46, but says that the Legislature may need to tweak the law. In particular, she does not like the spending cap provisions, which she says are inflexible and may not be appropriate for every local situation around the state.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman is a strong opponent of Act 46. He says the law will neither improve educational outcomes nor reduce property taxes. Phil Scott, the other Republican candidate, supports the idea of school consolidation, but does not think it will do much to reduce property taxes after the initial incentives have expired.
Finally, the Vermont ACLU has offered to represent in court any school district that believes the spending caps established by Act 46 violate the principles of cross-district equity in school spending required by the Vermont Supreme Court. The ACLU hopes the Legislature repeals the caps before Town Meeting Day to avoid having to face such a lawsuit.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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