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New Law Means Consolidation for Many Schools

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by Lindsey Grutchfield

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Act 46 — an act relating to education reform — into law on June 2. The new law is the culmination of years of legislative attempts to improve the delivery of education, starting in 2010 with the passage of Act 153. Act 153 concerned voluntary school district mergers among other things. Now, five years later, Act 46 takes school consolidation much further, aiming to completely overhaul the educational landscape of Vermont, all while maintaining the high standard of education that the state is known for.

The new law’s stated goal is to counteract the declining enrollment and astronomical per-pupil spending costs of many schools statewide. “We are that proverbial frog in the pot, slowly being cooked … Vermonters realize that if we want to maintain the fantastic schools we have, in the face of those demographic and fiscal realities, that we need to think carefully about how we educate our children,” said Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education. Simply put, this is to be accomplished with the widespread consolidation of Vermont school districts. Act 46 outlines a so-called “preferred model” for school districts under the law. A school operating as a preferred model has an average daily attendance of at least 900 students, operates its own supervisory district and is responsible for all resident students from preschool through 12th grade. The law also lays out an alternative structure for areas of the state in which the preferred model is not practical. The alternative structure allows for a supervisory union with several member school districts, so long as the member districts view themselves as collectively responsible for all the students living in the supervisory union, have a collective daily attendance of at least 1,100 and have the fewest possible member districts.

According to Bill Talbot, chief financial officer of the Agency of Education, school consolidation under Act 46 is to be primarily voluntary. The law is to provoke discussion regarding consolidation, says Talbot, and schools voluntarily merging under the new law will be eligible for aid from the Department of Education. However, by 2018 a state board will order districts to merge to meet the preferred or alternative structure of governance.

What does Act 46 mean for Vermont’s tradition of small schools? According to the language of the new law, “Vermont recognizes the important role that a small school plays in the social and educational fabric of its community.” The law stays true to that assertion, at least to the extent that the districts themselves still have a say in their ultimate fate. Should a supervisory union feel that they are not served well by merging under the new law they may, under certain circumstances, go before the board and explain why the preferred or alternative model of governance does not work for them. Although plans could be made in the future for schools that hold back, says Vaughn Altemus of the Department of Education, “in the immediate future, consolidation is very, very much in the hands of the community.”

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In terms of the Montpelier community, questions remain as to the extent to which Montpelier public schools will be affected by the passage of Act 46. According to Talbot, Montpelier schools are not exempt from the law and may or may not participate. The district, “could merge with the supervisory union that surrounds it, where U-32 resides,” he goes on to say. However, Brian Ricca, superintendent of Montpelier Public Schools, says that as Montpelier is already the preferred model of governance, the school is likely to be more affected by a spending cap present in Act 46 than any other part of the new law. Although he states that he is hesitant to make quick changes in Montpelier based on the law, Ricca says he is open to change in the future and is eager to watch supervisory unions elsewhere in the state, “to see where they identify efficiencies.” In addition, Ricca expresses solidarity with schools that are not as well positioned as Montpelier, saying that he views the new law as positive because “we have to balance ensuring high-quality education with a state-funded system on an unsustainable trajectory.”

A few towns over from the Montpelier school district lies the Washington Northeast Supervisory Union, home of the Cabot School and Twinfield Union School districts. These schools, as some of the smallest in the area with a collective student count of under 600, will likely be directly affected by the new law. According to Nancy Thomas, superintendent of the Washington Northeast Supervisory Union, the Cabot and Twinfield School boards are already working to explore all the options for possible mergers with neighboring districts. The supervisory union is also hoping to take advantage of the financial incentives offered by the board of education in order to stabilize taxes for residents of the area. As for Thomas’ own feelings towards the new law, she says, “A transition of this magnitude will present challenges and hardships, particularly for those of us in small supervisory unions. However, in the end, I believe there will be long term benefits for our students and our communities that will make the transition worthwhile.”

For Twinfield Union School, Cabot School and countless other schools across the state, Act 46 has cast the future into uncertainty and raised many questions about the transitions that lie ahead. It certainly requires schools to take on a great degree of responsibility, in order to reap the benefits of self-directed consolidation, including the Department of Education’s financial incentives.

“Act 46 will really challenge every school board in the state.  The success of Act 46 depends on success of leadership at the local level. It also depends on our ability to work well with others, both within current systems and across systems,” Holcombe said.

Meanwhile, some feel that the needs of students have gotten somewhat lost in the legislative process surrounding Act 46. Kate La Riviere testified before the legislature in February, remarking, “please add ‘kids’ to your list of education topics and keep Vermont’s children at the heart of your policy discussions. If you do this, we will see small and mid-sized community schools staying open and, most importantly, invested and happy kids preparing for an invested and happy future in Vermont.” Whether the opportunities outweigh the costs of Act 46 or vice versa, one thing’s for certain: Vermont’s educational landscape is about to change.