Brandon area to vote on school unification

BRANDON — This week, regular Vermont citizens will get a chance to vote on Act 46. The law, enacted last spring, offers financial incentives for towns to merge in multi-school districts governed by a single board and funded by a single budget.
Voters in the eight Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union towns will go to the polls on Tuesday to cast ballots on the proposed Act 46 unification plan for their district.
If approved by each of the eight towns, a so-called “side-by-side” district would be created. Six of the towns — Brandon, Goshen, Leicester, Pittsford, Sudbury and Whiting — would operate under a consolidated district called Otter Valley Unified Union School District and continue to send their middle and high school students to Otter Valley Union High School. The five elementary schools in those towns would continue to operate for at least four years.
Mendon and Chittenden, the other two RNeSU towns voting on Tuesday, would operate a pre-K through sixth-grade Barstow Unified Union School District with elementary grades attending Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden; they would send high schoolers to the school of their choice.
Voters in these towns will also cast ballots on a slate of candidates for the unified school board.
Polls in all eight towns will be open from 7 a.m.- 7 p.m.
The Act 46 school consolidation legislation passed during the 2015 legislative session provides tax rate and funding incentives to supervisory unions that create consolidated school districts by 2017. The Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union received approval from the State Board of Education for the side-by-side district plan last month.
While the goal of the law is to create efficiencies in services and spending across districts, that has already happened in RNeSU. For several years, RNeSU has been a model to other SUs since it has already consolidated transportation, food service, administration and special education across the existing school districts.
What local taxpayers will see if the new districts are approved is a lower tax rate. Districts that consolidate and are voter-approved by 2017 will see 8 cents off the local school tax the first year, 6 cents off the second year, 4 cents off the third year, and 2 cents off the fourth and final year (because it is a “side-by-side” unification plan the tax benefits are slightly less sweet than the unification plans up for vote March first in two Addison County districts).
In the Brandon-area schools, the approved districts will also continue to receive annual $200,000 Small School grants until 2020, as well as $130,000 in state merger funding if consolidation begins by July 2016.
The difference is that all elementary school students throughout the new OVUU district would then have school choice, which could increase student populations at the smaller schools like Sudbury, Whiting and Leicester. If any of those schools continue to see a drop in enrollment, in four years, the OVUU Board, not the state, could vote to close the school with a two-thirds majority vote.
On Jan. 19, voters in all towns will also elect that 13-member OVUU board and a four-member Barstow District Board to oversee the new districts. While the number of board representatives a town receives is based on population, there are also four “at-large” board seats weighted equally to the town seats.
Each of the board seats is voted on by every town.
According to a sample ballot, there will be contested elections for three of the seats on the OVUU board:
•  Lisa Kenyon and Michael Lufkin are competing for a three-year term representing Brandon.
•  Becky Bertrand and Ellen Kurrelmeyer are both running for a two-year seat representing Whiting.
•  Linda Kokinis and Tierney A. O’Meara are running for a three-year at-large seat.
Multiple public forums were held this month to inform the voters in eight towns about the proposed Act 46 school consolidation vote.
By law, RNeSU will have to maintain a board as well if the side-by-side district is approved, made up of three members of the Barstow District Board and three members of the OVUU Board.
That is something that Superintendent Jeanne Collins said RNeSU was not aware of until they appeared before the State Board of Education last month to submit the unification proposal.
The state board asked if RNeSU wanted a waiver on the requirement to maintain the RNeSU Board. Collins said that if the side-by-side is approved by the voters, the district will request a waiver on maintaining an RNeSU Board.
That is one of several concerns that Collins and other RNeSU officials have fielded during recent public forums.
“The state board asked us about that because it is a requirement by law and suggested that the new OVUU Board look at it in the future,” Collins said in an interview last Monday. “We’d have to ask for a waiver from the State Board of Education, and they have granted those before.”
Collins added that Rutland South has already asked for a waiver on the SU board requirement and expects to receive it.
Collins also said that voters should not be concerned about towns losing voting and veto power on the new boards, citing the success of the OV Board over the years in overseeing the welfare of all students in all towns.
“We already trust the OV Board to take care of our kids, so we can trust the pre-k through 12 board to take care of our kids,” she said. “We’ve been doing this well for 60 years and there is no reason to think the OVUU Board won’t continue to do so.”
Collins said if there is an issue at a specific school, and people in that school’s community advocate on an issue, they will be heard.
“People are going to rise up if there is an issue, and the board will still be accountable to them,” she said. “In fact, they will be even more accountable because they are responsible for every child in the district.”
The one, overarching school district budget will be a grouping of each school’s individual budgets, Collins said, and each school’s principal will continue to craft the school’s budget, just as they do now. The OVUU Board will oversee and approve the one district-wide budget.
For now, the RNeSU Board will oversee a roughly $6 million central office budget, including administration, special education, transportation and food service, until a waiver to dissolve that board is received. Once that board is dissolved, the central office budget will be rolled into the OVUU and Barstow budgets.
While critics claim that Act 46 is merely a vehicle to close small schools across Vermont, Collins disagrees, saying the legislation gives back local control.
“I actually see Act 46 as a vehicle that protects our small school option, because RNeSU is big enough that no single school can hold all of our kids,” she said. “And as long as we have elementary school choice, we’ll have a small school option.”
She added that not all children thrive in larger classrooms, that kids learn differently and that a small school setting often works better for some students.
If the side-by-side district is approved, Collins said, that’s not to say the configuration of the district’s small schools wouldn’t change. If approved, the new district opens up the opportunity to create specialized elementary schools, or magnets schools, where each school offers a unique discipline, be it science, math, technology, languages, the arts, or some configuration of those areas.
“What’s going to close small schools is a drop in student number,” Collins said. “That’s why our Act 46 Study Committee purposely made the two-thirds majority vote a requirement from the OVUU Board to close a school. By law, it could have been a simple majority, but it’s too big a decision, and the committee recognized that.”
In the end, Collins said, having the vote now to form the new district enables voters, teachers and administrators to be in charge of the direction of local education. While she acknowledges that Act 46 is an educational mandate, Collins said acting now will ensure that the new districts are created with local concerns in mind.
“We’ve got to take control now of what the state is making us do,” she said. “I’m really concerned that in many cases, your zip code determines what kind of educational services you get. That’s something that this law addresses. By offering elementary school choice, we can utilize the fact that we have large schools and small schools to meet the needs of all students. That’s something that we should be proud of, and capitalize on it.”

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