by Gina Akley and Tyler Smith
In the next few months, residents of Barre City and Barre Town will once again vote on a merger of school districts thanks to the passage of Act 46 in 2015. The merger has been put to a vote in Barre City once before and Barre Town two times; the first was at the recommendation of the original Merger Study Committee, which worked to develop a proposal from 2015 to 2016, and the second was as a result of a successful petition to re-vote in Barre Town. The initial proposal passed in Barre City but the proposal was rejected both times in Barre Town.
It’s a complicated topic, to be sure, and we want to clarify the situation, dispel misconceptions, and address the many issues raised about the merger by answering these frequently asked questions:
Who exactly is involved with the merger?
Barre City and Barre Town each have an elementary school serving grades pre-K–8th grade, with Spaulding High School serving both communities. At the moment, all three schools operate as separate districts under the Barre Supervisory Union (BSU). While the Supervisory Union provides some opportunity for collaboration and standardization, the schools still have to maintain separate budgets and boards, which limits their ability to further streamline operations. If the communities vote to merge, the three existing districts will be merged into the Barre Unified Union School District, and this new district would become operational on July 1, 2019.
What is Act 46 and how does it apply here? Why was it passed?
Act 46 is a far-reaching piece of legislation passed in 2015 designed to encourage local school districts to merge their existing governance structures into one consolidated pre-K–12 school district, with one school board responsible for every student in the district. The main goal is to improve the educational quality of those schools at an affordable and sustainable cost that taxpayers will value.
What is the argument for the merger?
Teachers would receive increased job security, and part-time employees would gain the ability to move between schools if enrollment levels change staffing requirements. There would be no plan to move teachers simply for the sake of moving them.
Students could benefit from further alignment of elementary and middle school curricula to ensure all students have the same opportunities. Sharing teachers/staff would also allow for expanded offerings to all students.
Furthermore, every dollar saved on efficiencies is an additional dollar that can be spent on improving the quality of students’ education without additionally burdening the taxpayers. The streamlined operations foresees an estimated savings of at least $100,000/year. Furthermore, tax reduction incentives are still available if communities move forward with a voluntary merger.
What are some misconceptions about the proposed merger?
Many community members have expressed a belief that an Act 46 merger will result in a merger of the schools, particularly the elementary and middle schools in Barre Town and Barre City. This is not the case. The Act 46 merger is an administrative and operational merger that affects school budgets and school boards, but each school will continue to run as a separate entity with the same administrative structure as it currently has.
We have also heard concern about students being forced to switch schools as a result of the merger. As a result, the Study Committee has heavily modified the previous Articles of Agreement to require a public vote to approve school restructuring, closings, and redistricting. In addition, the Articles state that students will not be required to attend school outside of their town of residence. The ballot warning also ensures the board cannot make changes to these and other key articles without taking it to a public vote.
What aspects of the merger still need to be hammered out?
From an operational stand-point, there is some work that will need be completed following either a voluntary or involuntary merger to ensure that the new district will be operational by the July 1, 2019 deadline. The new school board will be voted in at the same time as the merger vote. Upon a successful merger vote, the Barre Unified Union School District and its board would come into existence, and they would work over the next several months to prepare for the transition. Among the items they would address are:
a. Preparing and presenting a budget to the voters for Fiscal Year 2020;
b. Preparing for the Barre Unified Union School District annual meeting, March 5, 2019;
c. Transacting any other lawful business that comes before the Board.
The existing school boards would continue to operate to conduct the business of their districts through June 30, 2019, at which point the Barre Unified Union School District would become operational and the new board would take over all authority for the district.
Why has Barre Town voted down the merger twice?
It is impossible to know all of the reasons that the merger was voted down in Barre Town, but the information from polls taken during the first vote as well as public input during the most recent round of Committee work notes that many people were concerned about the loss of local control and the impact a merger may have on school closings, mergers, restructuring, and district boundaries.
The original Articles of Agreement to govern the new district left decisions around these matters in the hands of the school board, and residents were concerned that major decisions affecting the education of their children would be made without their input. In addition, community members expressed concern about the impact a merger would have on the security of their teachers and other service providers within each individual school.
There were also concerns about a disparity in financial and property resources between the two schools, many of which have been resolved over the past few years via building improvements and the sale of property from Barre Town school to the Town of Barre.
When is the next vote?
The Study Committee has recommended a vote date of November 6, 2018, which is the date of the general election. The Committee believes that this vote will draw the highest number of voters and best reflect the wishes of each community. This date also provides the Committee with more time to make sure that community members have the best information about what a merger means for schools and students.
The Vermont State Board of Education needs to release its final plan for all districts by November 30, 2018, so a November 6 vote date is cutting it pretty close. If the State Board rejects the proposed vote date, it will be moved forward to September 28. There are a few disadvantages to this date: it would be a standalone vote, meaning lower turnout, and it gives the Committee less time to make sure that voters have the best information in hand before making their decisions.
Does Barre Town have any hope of escaping a merger if its citizens reject it again?
The Secretary of Education released a draft statewide plan on June 1, 2018, which outlined how the State plans to deal with districts that have not yet merged voluntarily. The Barre districts were left out of the report because the Board of Education acknowledged that the Study Committee was currently in process. However, the Board’s recommendations regarding both the U-32 School District and the Twinfield Union School District are indicative of its approach to districts that it does not believe make a valid argument for an alternative structure under the Act 46 rules. It is impossible to know with certainty what the Board of Education’s final plan will require if the Barre districts do not vote to merge voluntarily, but it is reasonable to assume that a merger will be required.
Gina Akley and Tyler Smith are co-chairs of the Barre Act 46 Merger Study Committee