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OPINION: 12 Facts You Need to Know Before You Vote on the Proposed Montpelier-Roxbury School Merger

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by Tim Sinnott, resident of Montpelier

I am a Montpelier resident, the parent of two small children headed for the Montpelier Public Schools, and an unwavering believer in the power and importance of high quality education for the future success of our young people, our communities, and our state.  I also believe economics must play an important role in our decision-making if we are to create high quality, sustainable educational opportunities for the children in our rural state.  Despite the Montpelier-Roxbury Merger Committee’s assertion that there are no downsides to this merger, I believe there are a number of risks and unknowns associated with this decision that have not been well articulated by the merger committee in their promotional materials and events.
It’s incredibly important that decisions like this should be made by an informed electorate.  Both the voters of Montpelier and Roxbury deserve to understand all sides of this decision, the long and short-term risks and rewards for both communities, before casting their votes on June 20th.
Over the last several weeks I have made it my mission to try to understand the merger proposal as holistically as possible.  I have reviewed the merger proposal and promotional website carefully, attended promotional meetings in both Roxbury and Montpelier, and as suggested by merger committee member Steve Hingtgen, I have reviewed the minutes of the merger committee meetings which are open to the public.  I have also had a number of in-person conversations with merger committee members, including the two committee members who voted against the merger proposal – both Montpelier residents, both career teachers in Vermont’s public school system.  I have also heard many opinions, discussed many questions with friends, family and neighbors, some grounded in fact, and some grounded in misinformation.
Based on my research, the questions I have received, and the misinformation I have heard circulating, here are the 12 most important things I think all voters need to understand about this proposed merger:
1. Montpelier is exempt from state merger requirements.  As of May 23, 2017, the day Governor Phil Scott signed H.513 into law, Montpelier, along with other Vermont school districts with more than 900 students, is no longer required to merge with another school or school district.  Montpelier School District currently serves 992 equalized pupils. This new law doesn’t mean Montpelier can’t merge with another district, it simply means any merger we undertake from here on out is voluntary.
2. Roxbury’s education system has become financially unsustainable.  Roxbury does not have its own high school, and therefore participates in school choice, the process of paying to send their high school students to other schools around the state. Roxbury property taxes are high and unpredictable, largely a result of the high costs of school choice. The Roxbury community clearly values school choice a great deal, but has been compelled by unsustainably high tax rates to seek opportunities to merge with another school district.
3. One new district.  If the merger were to pass, there will be no division of responsibilities or finances by town or community.  Our respective school districts will be dissolved and replaced by a new, single, unified school district that will share all decision-making responsibilities as well as costs.  All taxpayers in the new district will share the cost of busing all students, the costs of faculty, staff and administration, the costs of special education, all school buildings, extracurricular activities, technology, as well as all the current debt and deficits held by both districts. For example, in the proposed merger budget, money has been allocated to pay off a Roxbury deficit on $195,000 in fiscal year 2019.  I have heard many people say they thought Roxbury would pay to bus their students to Montpelier.  This is simply not the case.  Should this merger pass, we will all be held responsible for busing costs.
4. Tax relief for Roxbury, then equal taxes.  The proposed merger will deliver a 25% reduction in taxes for Roxbury over the next 5 years. Their taxes will drop by 5% annually, the maximum reduction rate allowed by the state of Vermont, until both Montpelier and Roxbury are paying equal education tax rates.  It is worth noting however, that based on relative population and tax base, the Montpelier taxpayers will shoulder the vast majority of the financial burden for the new district, while seeing only a small projected tax savings.  According to a May article in The Bridge written by Phil Dodd, “The owner of a $200,000 home in Montpelier would, in 5 years, save just $40 per year with the merger.”
5. Roxbury Elementary School is a risk and at risk.  According to the merger proposal, the Roxbury Village School would continue to serve about 25 Roxbury students in grades k-4 and about 10 in pre-k (three and four-year-olds). The merger proposal stipulates the new school board would not be allowed to close the school for the first four years.  A school this small is a risky proposition.  How will our communities respond to present and future concerns about the financial cost of maintaining this small school? Will we be capable of working together to make decisions that work for both students and taxpayers?
On a related note, I am particularly concerned about comments made by merger committee chairperson Jon Guiffre on a number of occasions regarding Roxbury’s “tactical” decision to approach Montpelier about a merger.  According to the public minutes taken at the merger committee meeting on February 6th 2017, “Chairperson Guiffre said that he is not interested in seeing RVS (Roxbury Village School) closed and that the distance from Montpelier would help keep the building open because no one wants to bus young children large distances whereas if Roxbury merged with Northfield it might be considered acceptable to bus young children to Northfield.”
6. The geography of this proposed merger is illogical.  I am a cartographer by trade, and from the perspective of someone who spends all day every day staring at and creating maps, there is nothing about the geography of this merger that makes sense either logistically or financially.  Roxbury is closer to two school systems – the recently merged district of Northfield and Williamstown, and Randolph.  Let’s put aside for a moment the amount of time Roxbury students will spend on buses every day, (up to an hour each way) and focus on the cost of three bus trips every day to shuttle Roxbury students to and from Montpelier for school and extracurricular activities.  Pure mileage dictates that busing students to Montpelier will cost taxpayers more than busing Roxbury students to the two closer districts.
7. School choice for Roxbury for the first four years.  While many Roxbury students and residents are likely disappointed to be losing school choice due to high tuitioning costs, under the proposed agreement, “Roxbury students enrolled in grade seven or above at a school other than Montpelier as of May 1, 2017, will be ‘grandfathered’ into their current school system to assure continuity in the completion of their public education.”  Paying for Roxbury students to attend the school of their choice, including Northfield, U-32, St. Johnsbury Academy, Harwood, Randolph, and Sharon Academy, is known as tuitioning, and runs between $17,000 and $19,000 per student per year. Currently, no students from Roxbury choose to attend Montpelier schools. The estimated cost of tuitioning all Roxbury high school students for the four years stipulated in the proposed merger is $1,245,812.  Financial modeling in the proposed merger report assumes all “grandfathered students” will be tuitioned by the new district.  It was asked in a Montpelier forum if only 11th & 12th graders from Roxbury could be “grandfathered” and tuitioned to their schools of choice to save money. This idea was “not acceptable” to Roxbury committee members, though the costs of maintaining school choice is no longer financially possible for Roxbury on its own.  The compromise Roxbury agreed upon was to exclude the current 6th grade class from the grandfathering provision.
8. The state will provide tax incentives.  If we agree to the proposed merger, the state will roll out homestead tax cuts to all property owners in the new combined district over four years. However, according to the merger proposal, these tax cuts will be used to cover the costs of the merger, primarily the cost of tuitioning Roxbury students to other high schools.  Would it be wiser to reserve some of these state incentives to cover unforeseen costs down the road?
9. Shifts in decision-making power & responsibility.  Under the proposed merger, Roxbury residents will be represented by two members on the new unified district school board with one vote each. Montpelier residents will be represented by seven school board members with two votes each. Roxbury will largely lose decision-making control over the education of their young people and over their school budget.  On the flip side, Montpelier will take on the responsibility of educating Roxbury students.  While there may be some similarities between our two communities, there are also many differences.  Are Montpelier residents prepared to make tough decisions on behalf of Roxbury, such as closing the Roxbury Village School should student numbers become unsustainable?  Are Roxbury residents ready to relinquish control?  Many Roxbury residents have expressed concern about the loss of decision-making power noted above, both in the Roxbury promotional meeting I attended and in the public merger committee meeting minutes, lest Montpelier residents believe all Roxbury residents are eager to partner with Montpelier.
10. More students for Montpelier…eventually.  The merger proposal points to the influx of new students into the Montpelier high school as one of the major benefits of the merger to Montpelier.  Montpelier High School is certainly in need of students, however, it’s critical that all voters understand that the tuitioning provision discussed above means that the first Roxbury students, the graduating high school class of 2024, will not be required to attend Montpelier High School until August 2020.  At this moment in time, this class is made up of seven Roxbury students.  Some Roxbury students may choose to attend Montpelier earlier, but it is not required.
11. The future is unknown.  In addition to the questions posed above, there are also many long-term unknowns that should be factored into our decision-making. Uncertainties like future population trends in both communities – the Roxbury population has been declining, while the Montpelier population is on the rise – which could lead to future changes throughout the district, including busing students, new teachers, new school buildings, school closings, expanded programs, contracted programs, etc., all of which will impact the budget.  The proposed budget itself has gone through several revisions in order to present palatable numbers for Montpelier residents.  However, with such a small projected tax savings for Montpelier ($40/year for a $200,000 home) and so many unknowns, it seems equally possible that merging with Roxbury could actually cost Montpelier taxpayers more money.  In the end, it was these unknowns that motived two Montpelier merger committee members to vote against the proposal. “I felt the risks outweighed the rewards for Montpelier,” said merger committee member and Montpelier School Board member Tina Muncy.
12. A final test – does this merger deliver the benefits intended by Act 46 to both communities equally?  According to the Montpelier-Roxbury Merger Committee promotional presentation, the following are the ways this merger achieves the educational and financial goals of Act 46.
a. Greater diversity – rural and urban, socio-economic
b. Stability and equity for Roxbury students
c. Stabilizes Roxbury Village School as part of a larger district
d. Broader/deeper middle school experiences for Roxbury students
e. Ability for Roxbury students to remain together after elementary grades
f. Provides public school transportation for Roxbury students, grades 7-12
g. Increases student numbers in Montpelier – potential for more course offerings in Montpelier, course stability/justification
h. Provisions for “grandfathering” some Roxbury students to assure continuity
i. Greater efficiencies – use of underutilized capacity in Montpelier
j. Lower expenditures for range of supports
k. Direct financial benefits for taxpayers – incentives
l. Greater tax rate stability for taxpayers
m. Reduced demand on Education Fund, $542,000 annually by FY ’23.
Those are the key facts and questions I have gathered in the past few weeks, but I encourage everyone to do their own research and come to your own conclusions.  I am committed to maintaining an open and inquisitive mind until I cast my vote.  At the end of the day, it’s less important HOW we all decide to vote, than the act of educating ourselves and casting informed votes.