State board’s Act 46 ruling ‘tearing apart’ Windsor Southeast, superintendent says

A year ago, towns in the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union jumped into Act 46 feet first — racing toward incentives that would bring tax relief and reduce school spending.

Local officials proposed merging three choice districts and the lone school district in the area that operates its own school.

But that initiative came to a dead halt when the State Board of Education announced that newly merged school districts could not both operate schools and tuition out students in the same grades.

Superintendent Dave Baker said Windsor Southeast is the “poster child” for the issue.

His supervisory union has three choice towns — Hartland (tuitions 9-12), Weathersfield (tuitions 9-12) and West Windsor (tuitions 7-12). Windsor operates a K-12 school.

The State Board of Education, which has the ultimate authority to approve or reject merger plans, says under existing law the supervisory union cannot form a new unified district because towns that tuition out students can’t merge with towns that run schools.

Weathersfield School

Weathersfield School

Baker says the board’s ruling is tearing apart his supervisory union.

Eager to take advantage of tax incentives,  Windsor Southeast was one of the first supervisory unions in the state to present a case to the state board.

“We jumped out early, we thought we were ready to go,” Baker said. “At that time West Windsor was willing to open up on grades 7 and 8. Then the [SBE] threw the law in our face that we can’t operate and offer choice.”

When Windsor first brought the plan to the board, it appeared to be an acceptable proposal, Baker said. Two meetings later, he said, “they made an emphatic statement and took it off the table.”

Even though the State Board of Education rejected the merger plan, members of the Act 46 study committee and some community members continue to cling to the unification plan they call a 3-by-1. They hope that by pursuing a waiver they might be able to get tax incentives or at least keep small schools grants and other protections for schools with declining populations.

The local Act 46 study committee asked the Agency of Education to attend their June meeting in Windsor to determine whether a waiver or an alternative structure would be possible. Finance Manager Brad James and Donna Russo-Savage, a lawyer for the agency, were on hand to answer questions. Russo-Savage told study committee volunteers that the district has the option of a waiver or applying for an alternative structure, but neither is guaranteed.

Not long after the Windsor meeting, the State Board of Education issued a policy statement denying protections such as the small school grants for districts that both tuition out students and operate schools for the same grades.

“All choices come with consequences,” the board said in the policy statement. “A decision not to make any changes, structural or otherwise, will not insulate a school district or group of school districts from the consequences of declining enrollments and increasing tax rates.”

The decision puts Windsor Southeast in a bind. The three districts that offer choice don’t want to form a regional high school, and Windsor doesn’t want to give up its school.

Baker said the districts would not budge even if it means losing the small schools grants.

“These folks aren’t going to give up choice,” Baker said. “If [the SBE] thinks tax incentives will get them to do it – there is no way.”

“If we can’t get one of those three choice towns or another operating district to partner up with Windsor then we are at a loss,” Baker said. “We don’t have enough students on the choice side and we don’t have enough operating structures. We are in a holding pattern.”

Windsor Southeast has been considering consolidating into one district for several years but choice districts do not want to send their students to Windsor High School where 44 percent of the students participate in the free and reduced lunch program. Statewide, 39 percent of students are served by the federal program.

Students in West Windsor choose Woodstock Union High school instead, which has a 25 percent free and reduced lunch rate. Weathersfield students go to either Springfield, which has a 48 percent free and reduced lunch rate, or Windsor. Students from the northern end of Hartland tend to go to Hartford (26 percent FRL), Thetford (approximately 22 percent FRL) and Hanover (4.43 percent). Hartland sends students to about 10 different public and private schools.

“We can’t predict every year where they will go and there is a big difference in tuition,” Baker said. Hanover costs close to $20,000 per pupil, Thetford Academy is nearly $18,000 a student and Hartford will charge just over $16,000 this coming school year. The Vermont statewide average per pupil spending for this coming school year is $14,677, according to the Agency of Education.

Meanwhile, enrollments have plummetted in some of the towns. Hartland has lost 35 percent of its students from 1997 to 2014, Weathersfield enrollment is down 17 percent over the same period, West Windsor has lost 3 percent and Windsor, the operating town, rivals Hartland with a loss of 32 percent of their student population.

Taxes have gone up in all four towns since fiscal year 2012. Hartland residents have seen an increase in their equalized tax rates (before CLA) from $1.44 on every $100 of assessed property value in 2012 to $1.73 in FY 2016; Weathersfield taxes have gone up from $1.44 to $1.63 for the same years, and West Windsor has gone from $1.25 in 2012 to $1.71 in 2016 and in FY17 the tax rate is projected to go up to approximately $1.97, according to James. The lone operating town, Windsor, has also seen increases from $1.25 in FY12 to $1.43 in FY16.

“West Windsor is in financial difficulties based partly, if not largely on school choice,” said Baker. “Weatherfield and Hartland, in order to maintain respectable budgets can only look at their K-8 program to make cuts.” Meanwhile, Baker said, high schools can set tuition wherever they want.

The options the Study Committee has considered include:

The three-by-one/alternative structure (in which they either get a waiver and/or lose tax incentives and small school protections);

A regional high school, but Weathersfield jettisoned this option because they want to hold on to choice.

The Windsor Southeast Act 46 study committee is now approaching Hartford and Springfield, two school districts that operate schools and border the north and south ends of the supervisory union. If one or both of these school districts would join with Windsor’s operating district they can create a side-by-side governance structure that fits the requirements of a Regional Education District merger. They can then take advantage of tax incentives and protections.

Baker said it may be difficult to entice Hartford because the district is sizeable already and doesn’t need to merge.

Windsor resident Jason Gaddis balks at the idea of a side-by-side that keeps the choice districts intact because he said it would perpetuate inequality. “I think that the side-by-side is repugnant and classist and entirely inequitable,” Gaddis said. “It is better called ‘separate-and-not-equal’ and is a thinly-veiled, classist version of the racist Jim Crow laws of the old South.”

At their most recent meeting, the State Board of Education made it clear that they will be taking socio-economic as well as geographic isolation into account when they are considering merger proposals. The board has said it will not approve any mergers that would further segregate students socio-economically.

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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