Peacham sees its fate hanging on Act 46 revision bills - VTDigger
 

Peacham sees its fate hanging on Act 46 revision bills

The Peacham School Board voted not to merge with other school districts Monday night. It decided instead to hang its hopes on pending legislation that would extend timelines for mergers to get tax incentives and give more status to alternative ways to comply with Act 46.

After receiving a detailed report from the Peacham Act 46 study committee, the five members of the school board accepted its recommendation to apply for an alternative structure on its own.

“As an isolated structure we are looking to H.15 to level the playing field for Peacham and the other 80-plus districts considering alternative structures,” Margaret MacLean, a spokesperson for Peacham’s study committee, said in an interview.

Baruth Ashe

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, left, is chair of the Education Committee. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Act 46 — the law that compels school districts to have talks about merging into larger districts — and previous laws known as acts 153 and 156 together provide merger models for school districts to fit into.

H.15 and its companion bill, S.15, would eliminate the “preferred structure” from Act 46. The law has a bias toward a single district where several elementary schools feed into a middle and high school.

The legislation would put an alternative structure — an option put into the law for special cases — on equal footing. The bills would also extend the timeline for when mergers and votes on them have to occur while still garnering tax incentives offered to those districts that have already complied with the law.

School districts choosing alternative structures have to prove they meet the goals of the law to provide equity, quality and a variety of educational opportunities to students while maximizing cost savings from becoming larger, sharing resources and reducing staff. They apply to the State Board of Education at the end of the three phases of Act 46 mergers to be considered when the secretary of education sets new school district borders in 2020.

Another wrinkle at play for Peacham is that education law does not allow the merging of a school district that tuitions students to other schools with those that operate schools for the same grades being tuitioned. That is why the community considers itself an “isolated structure.”

MacLean told lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee that Peacham’s history and geography make it impossible for its district to merge with its neighbors. She said it isn’t fair that the town cannot access tax incentives because it doesn’t fit into the kind of mergers favored by the state’s laws.

“We are one of the poster children for what Act 46 describes as an alternative structure, and we are waiting for clarity and the opportunity to comply with the law that S.15 would offer,” she said.

MacLean said South Hero is another area that is isolated due to the way it operates some grades and tuitions others. In all, she said, 82 towns have problems fitting into the preferred structure due to geographic or structural isolation or a reluctance to give up school choice or share control of their schools with a larger school board that makes decisions for all the children in several communities.

“These towns are asking for a level playing field to enable them to comply with the law,” she said.

There are potential drawbacks to choosing an alternative structure: A community gets no tax incentives for merging; schools could lose access to small-schools grants; and the education secretary and state board can still force the district to merge with others that have similar operating systems when redrawing the map.

Peacham study committee members told the school board that after researching and talking with parents, they believe they are meeting the goals of the law and that student learning opportunities at their elementary school exceed requirements in Act 46.

Peacham never joined a formal study committee but explored merging with two other groups. One option was to unify with Greensboro and Stannard, towns that also have pre-K-through-six schools. But Greensboro students go to Hazen Union High School for grades seven through 12. For the merger to go forward, the town would have to leave Hazen, and voters in Hardwick and Woodbury would have to agree.

Distance was also a factor for Peacham, which is 25 miles away, according to MacLean.

Another option the study group looked at would have brought Peacham together with Walden, Barnet and Waterford, but in this scenario Peacham would have to give up school choice in grades seven and eight, or the other two towns would have to give up teaching those grades and tuition their students elsewhere.

After surveying members of the Peacham community, the study committee learned that 72 percent felt keeping school choice for the middle school grades was “important” or “extremely important.”

MacLean said the other schools in this group were also much bigger than Peacham’s, and that was not appealing to residents. Peacham — a kindergarten-through-six school with 49 students last year — has a small-school grant. The average teacher salary is $59,000, and there are not enough children on special education to be reported.

The study group felt that if this merger were to go forward, Peacham would need additional articles of agreement to protect its school from being closed.

“Basically it was not an appropriate match for us. Though, it may be appropriate for the three schools involved. That is something for their voters to decide,” MacLean said.

MacLean said Peacham is “structurally unique” and will pursue an alternative path but that it is counting on companion bills S.15 and H.15 to help it do this.

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • Margaret Maclean

    Current enrollment at Peacham School is 58 students.

  • David Schoales

    The Alternative Structure is one of the options in the law, complete with goals and deadlines. The State Board of Ed came up with truly onerous rules in an attempt to coerce districts into accepting bad mergers in order to comply with the law. Legislators voted for Act 46 because it included an alternative- an off-ramp for districts where mergers were not the best path to equity and effifiency, and probably damaging. These leaders need to stand up for their constituents and support the fair standards in H 15 and S 15.
    The SBE will have a second draft of rules for the Alternative Structure soon. Hopefully they will be fair rather than a steep uphill off-ramp.

  • Randall Szott

    Most of us that support these changes are simply trying to bring *implementation* of Act 46 into line with the original *intent* of the law. As Senators Cummings and Pollina, and Rep. Ancel have said:

    “Section 5b of Act 46 lists some factors that may lead towns to conclude that an alternative model is best, but ultimately leaves that choice to the towns. The draft rule, by contrast, mandates rigid requirements that must be met for an alternative model to be accepted. This goes far beyond the spirit and letter of Act 46,”

    Some communities may have had an easy time merging under the stringent rule-making alteration of the legislation, but our community and many others are struggling. We need more time to avoid entering into agreements that will permanently damage our school and community. We need the level playing field that was originally promised with the act’s passage.

    Vermont’s schools may be expensive by some measures, but forcing the “preferred structure” on every community will cost us much more than money, it will cut out the heart of many towns and weaken public life in our state.

  • Dan MacArthur

    What is most surprising to me about all of this discussion is how the time frame seems to be left out completely. Many Districts are voting on mergers this Spring. ALternative Structure petitions need (according to the draft rules, which are not yet actual rules) to be in to the Board of Ed by November 2017, and there is no clear indication of how much time they might have to approve them (perhaps up to a year). This leaves any District that is considering an Alternative completely hanging in the wind, losing out on any incentives and possible merger talks, until way too late in the game. If the Legislature and the Agency do nothing else they should treat Districts decently who are not fitting easily into some sort of merger and get some rules and some timelines defined immediately, and these rules should spell out exactly what all of the various parameters are- structural isolation, geographic isolation, 2+2, 3+1, Existing, etc. , and they should give us timelines that make sense and allow Districts to make decisions without being penalized unfairly. I hear that the Agency is drastically under-staffed- another GREAT reason to extend timelines. Again, it is completely unfair to ask Districts to make merger decisions this Spring and at the same time make excuses for why the Rules were not clear and out of draft format BEFORE these decisions are being made. School Districts are not responsible for funding the Agency adequately so paperwork can be done on time.

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