Shumlin says Essex, Westford merger proves Act 46 is working

ESSEX JUNCTION — Gov. Peter Shumlin said the recent vote by Essex Junction, Essex Town and Westford approving the first accelerated school district merger under Act 46 is evidence that the legislation is working as intended.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, flanked by students and local school officials, praises the Essex, Westford school district merger. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin, flanked by students and local school officials, praises the Essex, Westford school district merger. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

“The three communities in this district have just proven how you can make collaborative difficult decisions” that over time improve the quality of education and reduce its cost, Shumlin said at a Tuesday news conference in the Essex High School library.

The governor also signaled that changes will have to be made to the law, which passed the Legislature this year, including a provision that penalizes towns that increase their spending.

“I’m sure there will be some tweaks,” he said, noting the complexity of the law.

Vermont has roughly 20,000 fewer students than it did two decades ago, but it still has the same number of schools and the same administrative structure. That dynamic puts upward pressure on property taxes that are used to pay for public education.

It’s hoped that school district mergers will help communities maintain high-quality education by pooling their resources, while reducing educational costs, by eliminating redundant bureaucracy, and property taxes.

The Essex merger is expected to save the three towns more than $1 million after three years on combined school spending that is currently $54 million annually, according to a local study committee that helped plan the merger. That estimate is conservative, they said, and more savings are possible.

Act 46 created an accelerated school district merger program, through which local communities that vote by July 1, 2016, to merge town districts and implement them by 2017, will enjoy five years of education property tax breaks. Smaller tax breaks are still available to communities that don’t meet that deadline, but the state can mandate mergers among districts that don’t act prior to 2019. Those communities won’t receive any tax breaks, either.

Shumlin said there are 10 communities considering accelerated mergers across the state, which far exceeds the four to five mergers his administration was anticipating.

However, voters in two Lamoille County towns, Morristown and Elmore, recently rejected a merger — despite gaining a slim majority in Morristown. Elmore residents were concerned about losing school choice, a program that allows Vermont high school students to attend any school in the state.

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, who is running for governor, addressed that vote in his home community at Tuesday’s news conference, saying that mergers might take several votes.

“That reflected the fact that we needed to go back to the table and address some of the concerns,” Smith said, adding that low voter turnout and what he said was misinformation spread by opponents hurt the merger’s prospects.

Smith said that significant change in school governance “hasn’t happened in the state for over 120 years,” and that inevitably the six-month-old law will need fine-tuning, but he believes Act 46 is taking Vermont’s public education system in the right direction.

As he campaigns for governor, Smith said the concerns he hears most often about Act 46 are about its school spending thresholds and the loss of school choice when districts that do offer choice merge with those that don’t.

That was the case for Westford, when it merged with Essex Junction and Essex Town. Westford students entering ninth grade will be still be able to chose any high school, but after that, all its students will attend Essex High School.

Shumlin pointed out that the loss of school choice in a merger is the result of previous laws, not Act 46. Several Republican House members are seeking to change that rule.

There were already school spending thresholds, where towns that exceeded per-pupil spending limits paid a property tax penalty, but it was previously uniform across the state. Under Act 46, those spending thresholds are now tied to a town’s school spending in the previous year. As a result, some towns will pay a penalty if their costs increase at all.

Shumlin said his administration will work with the Legislature during the upcoming session to ensure those thresholds are “sensible” and don’t “adversely punish anybody.”

Smith said the House Education Committee will hear testimony next week, to obtain input on areas of concern in the new law.

Morgan True

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