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.
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.