Education Secretary urges action on Act 46 school consolidation law

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe on Monday praised the Addison Central Supervisory Union for pursuing school governance consolidation under Act 46, and warned that districts that do not follow the same path may not survive in this era of declining enrollment and soaring education expenses.
Holcombe made her comments during a special “school district unification” forum held at Middlebury Union High School. She was part of a panel that included ACSU Superintendent Peter Burrows, ACSU board Chairman Rick Scott, and Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton.
The ACSU is one of eight supervisory unions statewide seeking an accelerated merger under Act 46, a new state law that offers financial incentives to SUs that agree to establish a single, consolidated K-12 school district that would have a single budget and be governed by a single board.
State lawmakers believe governance consolidation will provide long-term stability for public schools by promoting shared resources, reduced bureaucracy and a greater emphasis on classroom teaching. Supervisory unions that opt for “accelerated” mergers under Act 46 will receive financial advantages, including a decrease of 10 cents on the education property tax rate during the first year of the governance merger, followed by 8 cents in year two; 6 cents in year three; 4 cents in year four; and finally, 2 cents in year five. The participating SUs will also receive a one-time  “transition facilitation grant” of $150,000 and the ability to retain their Small Schools Grants.
The eight SUs that have confirmed their accelerated merger intentions to the Agency of Education include: ACSU; Addison Northwest Supervisory Union; Addison-Rutland; Chittenden South; Franklin Central; Lamoille North; Orleans Central; and Washington West. A few other SUs have indicated the possibility of pursuing an accelerated merger, according to Agency of Education officials. Voters in Chittenden Central Supervisory Union and the Essex Town school district OK’d an accelerated merger earlier this month.
In order to qualify for the accelerated merger process, the new supervisory union district must have a minimum average daily membership (enrollment) of 900 students and must be approved by July 1, 2016, by all district voters — in ACSU that means by voters in Ripton, Salisbury, Cornwall, Bridport, Shoreham, Weybridge and Middlebury. All seven ACSU-member communities will be voting on the governance merger on Town Meeting Day, March 1.
In the meantime, ACSU officials will engage in an aggressive public information campaign in hopes of winning a positive vote in all towns, as a “no” vote in even one of the seven towns would derail the accelerated merger (barring a successful revote). Monday’s forum was but one of many public meetings that will be held throughout the ACSU during the coming months to give local voters an understanding of what’s at stake with Act 46.
Holcombe noted that under the current system, supervisory unions can include elementary school communities with divergent enrollments and education property tax rates. This sets up a situation whereby students in one elementary school can be a lot better prepared than students in another, more cash-strapped elementary school in the same supervisory union, and then they eventually face the same challenges in secondary school.
“If your elementary school didn’t offer foreign languages, when you reached the middle school, some of your peers might be further ahead,” Holcombe cited as an example of the inequity of the current system.
She argued that it would behoove all schools to become a true part of their greater supervisory union community, through which schools’ most pressing needs could be better addressed through a single budget and shared resources.
“It really matters,” she said. “And when we don’t address those kinds of (equity) issues, we are making a really powerful statement to the children about our commitment to taking care of all of the children in our communities.”
Holcombe said Vermonters have repeatedly demonstrated a commitment to public education. Vermont currently spends 5.2 percent of its state product on education — the highest in the nation.
“Vermonters care about schools,” Holcombe said. “We pay for schools at very high levels because we know education is very, very important. It’s part of how you lay a foundation for democracy. It’s part of how we make sure we have strong, vital communities. And it’s how we make sure that our children grow up and can take the jobs that make a strong economic future.”
Still, Vermont needs to shore up some equity gaps within its public education system, particularly as it relates to services for disabled children and students “coming out of high poverty backgrounds,” Holcombe said.
A little more than 40 percent of children in Vermont are currently living in poverty, according to Holcombe. A growing number of children are being raised in households in which a parent or parents are abusing prescription drugs, she added.
“What that looks like in our schools is younger and younger children with more extreme, challenging behaviors who need highly specialized instruction,” she said.
But financial pressures, Holcombe noted, are not only precluding schools from offering specialized instruction, they are having to cut back on what they currently offer.
“We know that some places are feeling such acute budget pressures right now that they are actually starting to limit, or cut, the kinds of educational opportunities they offer for their children.”
During her travels around the state, Holcombe said, she has visited schools that have cut music, arts, after-school programs and support services due to strained finances.
“Some of what we value for our children is disappearing before our eyes,” Holcombe said. “That’s something I hear from a lot of Vermonters that they are worried about.”
Holcombe acknowledged the importance Vermonters have placed in having local control over their schools and how they are financed. But such control provides little solace for many voters, she argued.
“If local control becomes, ‘What program are you going to cut?’ that’s not the kind of local control I hear a lot of Vermonters advocating for,” she said.
Small rural schools are facing a particular financial pinch, according to Holcombe, who said 70 percent of the school districts in Vermont have fewer than 100 students. In the ACSU, Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary is the only primary school that has an enrollment of more than 100 students. Holcombe said classes at some Vermont schools are down to five students, a ratio she stressed can have a negative impact on learning. She showed slides showing a steady decline in enrollment statewide (except for in Chittenden County) at the same time that school budgets have increased annually — often at rates in excess of inflation.
“The challenge is, when you are too small, you just don’t have that scale to buy some of the things we think we really need for our kids,” she said.
Holcombe suggested that governance consolidation, through Act 46, could cut down on school administration. The ACSU central office, she noted, now has to prepare nine separate budgets.
“The more duplication there is, the less time is spent enhancing the kinds of educational opportunities that we want for our children,” she said.
Those children, Holcombe said, are moving out of Vermont in large numbers following high school. That’s in part due to a lack of well-paying jobs, she said. And fewer people entering the workforce means fewer incomes to support state programs — including education.
“We always say at the agency that our two best exports are well-educated high school graduates and maple syrup,” Holcombe said.
Looking forward, Holcombe is urging communities to build consensus on their educational priorities as they decide the path they want to take through Act 46.
Some Vermont towns have already made tough choices, according to Holcombe. She specifically cited the examples of:
•  Guildhall, which closed its K-5 school that was down to 20 students and looking at a per-pupil cost rise from $12,000 to $20,000. The community now tuitions its students to other schools.
•  Bridgewater, which recently closed its elementary school and is sending its 30 students to nearby Pomfret. Both communities have seen a decrease in their respective education property tax rates since cooperating on a shared school, according to Holcombe.
On the other hand, the town of Elmore a few weeks ago voted against pursuing a school merger with Morristown. Consequently, Elmore’s education property tax rate is expected to rise by around 35 cents next year, according to Holcombe.
Locally, Holcombe pointed to Weybridge Elementary as having an education property tax rate of around $2. She noted the state is also sending $366,000 to Weybridge to support education. Weybridge is one of the ACSU’s smallest schools and has one of the highest per-pupil spending rates in the state.
“You need to think about this,” Holcombe said. “We all pay for that education. When we draw down more from the education fund, what we are all doing is increasing tax rates statewide. The costs of those (local) decisions are having a statewide impact.”
The state’s education fund, Holcombe said, is often regarded as a “golden egg.” Cracking that golden egg through unwise spending could have disastrous consequences, she said.
“I can tell you that if we did not have the education fund right now and went back to our old funding formula, it would close the small schools overnight, because many of our small schools are heavily supported by the education fund,” Holcombe said.
Act 46, according to Holcombe, is a mechanism through which to reduce some of the pressures on the education fund and provide more cost-effective, quality education.
“We have this opportunity right now to think about what changes we might be able to make that would enhance our systems and make sure that they are still strong not just for today, but for the next 20 years,” Holcombe said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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