Editorial: Finding favor with Act 46

Even as two of Vermont’s five current gubernatorial candidates call for the repeal of Act 46, schools and towns are steadily embracing the state’s new school governance law with some success and even enthusiasm, while other towns are beginning to understand the subtleties inherent in the law that allow for flexibility.
As each of the union high school districts in Addison County and Brandon contemplate merger scenarios, it’s encouraging to see the three towns of Essex Town, Essex Junction and Westford approve the first accelerated school district merger under the new law. Once the merger is implemented, the three towns conservatively expect to save more than $1 million annually in governance savings.
The real sweetener for those seeking an accelerated merger is the short-term reduction in taxes. For those towns that make the deadline they receive a homestead tax rate reduction of 10 cents in the first year, which continues over five years on a declining scale. For taxpayers, that’s a significant carrot.
But the law is not just about saving dollars. It’s also about developing efficient governance practices, using our public school facilities effectively, and using scale to improve a district’s ability to offer the best education possible to students.
To that end, Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol and chairman of the House Education Committee that drafted Act 46, said he was excited by how school districts were now approaching the law. “I’ve seen a much greater willingness (among schools) to look at what the possibilities are and come up with some creative ideas,” he said at a recent forum in Wilmington, as reported by VTDigger. “And if the communities do that work, that’s the most important part of Act 46.”
The evidence of that work is everywhere. Suddenly school reform is on the minds of every district in the state. Efficiencies are being discussed. Better school practices are serious considerations. That, in itself, is an exciting development. In fact, the genius of Act 46 is that it initiates the discussion of merging schools and the consequences of that, but effectively leaves it up to each individual school board to develop its own courses of action.
While the state does have the authority under Act 46 to mandate a merger of governance for districts that have demonstrated disregard for the law, the hope is that school districts will see the benefit of merging school governance and other functions that drive better educational outcomes, and that outcome will be avoided. But the law also allows customized governance structures for schools as long as the plan is approved by the State Board of Education, or a community can say they tried, couldn’t make it work, and petition to remain unchanged.
“The State Board of Education,” said Sharpe, “has the authority to say, ‘You’re right. You did your work, and we respect that work and we’re going to go along with your suggestion.’”
With that flexibility, and the likelihood the legislature will substantially tweak a few rough spots in the bill this session, the bill’s popularity will likely find greater favor over the next several months, making it a less caustic campaign issue for its supporters and, perhaps, a concern for candidates championing its demise.
Angelo S. Lynn

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