Committee ditches bill seen as Act 46 escape hatch

Baruth Ashe
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, is chair of the Education Committee. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
The Senate Committee on Education decided to set aside a bill that many school districts struggling with merger talks had hoped would give them a way out.

Chair Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, told the panel that S.15 would offer so much flexibility as to negate the intent of the law, which compels school districts to have talks about merging.

“We would take away the need to merge at all. There is no longer a preferred structure, and the need to merge is gone so everybody would put the brakes on,” he said.

An alternative bill the committee is drafting provides two new ways for school districts to merge and extends some timelines. “It answers many problems we have talked about,” Baruth said.

Act 46 and previous laws known as acts 153 and 156 together provide merger models for school districts to fit into. S.15 and its companion bill, H.15, would change Act 46 by getting rid of the preferred merger structure. It would elevate alternative structures, change the timelines in the law and provide protections around small-school grants while requiring the State Board of Education to give case-by-case consideration to districts proposing such structures.

S.15 would create two paths, one for districts that have completed Act 46 mergers and another for those that haven’t, and it offers them a number of off-ramps, according to Baruth.

Committee members were concerned that some of the school district representatives who have testified on behalf of S.15 were pinning too much hope on it. They wanted to provide clarity.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, said he sympathizes with communities that are struggling but that the committee should send a clear message sooner rather than later. Otherwise it would “invite people to linger in uncertainty.”

Becca Balint
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham. Brattleboro Reformer file photo
After surveying committee members Tuesday, Baruth said they will set aside S.15 and focus on the committee bill and the language they have been developing. Only Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a sponsor of S.15, disagreed.

“I think S.15 is an imperfect vehicle,” said Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, but she added that people have legitimate concerns and the committee needs to respond to them.

Baruth agreed. “(The committee bill) is an attempt to create viable options for communities having trouble. … Let’s add flexibility to the law now and move forward with it and trust that we will have more results like those that we have been having,” he said.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said he would remain open to suggestions but was against continuing work on S.15 because he hadn’t been convinced it would improve education quality for students while cutting costs. “I’m not sure I’ve heard a compelling argument in S.15 at this point for those two goals,” he said.

Members of the committee asked the chair what the Legislature’s intent had been when it created alternative structures in the law. Baruth, who was on the education panel then, said he thinks people have read the law to find an escape hatch and latched onto alternative structures. But he said that was not why they were put into the law.

“It was never merge or do an alternative structure,” Baruth said. Act 46 was instructing school districts to merge and then in the end, where places have not been able to do that, the secretary of education and state board will work with those few areas to figure out the best way forward.

“To the extent you can merge you have to do that, but if you can’t, in the end game” there would be alternative structures, he said.

“Think of the game Scrabble,” he said. “When you get to the end it is really tough, the board is locked up, and you have tiles that don’t fit with other tiles.” At the end there will be people who were not able to move — maybe a district here or there, he said. The law empowers the secretary and board to rope them together.

Benning acknowledged he was outvoted over S.15. “I do think we will have this conversation again, whether we want to or not,” he said.

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  • Margaret Maclean

    S15 is not an escape hatch. It is not a way out of compliance with the goals of the law. It is a way IN for rural communities to comply with the law and reach to meet the goals of the law.

    Many have testified about why the preferred model is not possible for them due to their isolated structure, choice patterns, history, geography and local values.

    82 districts are currently saying the preferred and conventional models are not a match.

    Why is Senate Education so defensive of the preferred model? If it is the best way for communities to reach the goals of the law and get incentives to boot, then why be so defensive about it?

    When the law was passed Senator Baruth and Rep Sharpe made much of the fact that Act 46 was not ONE SIZE FITS ALL. They constantly commented about the fact that THE LAW WAS NOT ABOUT CLOSING SCHOOLS. Many legislators voted for the law believing this.

    Now it appears that was a smokescreen. In reality setting aside S15 is saying Act 46 is ONE SIZE FITS ALL and YES it is about eliminating local school boards so neighbors will close schools. (Digger interview Senator Baruth by Marc Johnson)

    How many commuties will it take to say NO before the education committees will look at leveling the playing field? Making – preferred, conventional and alternative options equitable, albeit some with more incentives than others. 100 districts? We will surely reach that number this spring.

    The state should be rewarding RESULTS not compliance with rules. Districts that meet goals related to opportunity, quality, transparency, accountability and value should be rewarded, regardless of the pathway to those goals.

    Instead we have a law that rewards compliance with rules regardless of outcomes and a committee that is afraid to open the door to alternatives that could demonstrate evidence of meeting the goals in creative ways.

    A third of the senate cosponsored this bill introduced by Senator Jane Kitchel. Senator Kitchel understands rural communities and has listened, as does Senator Benning. Unfortunately it appears the rest of the committee is all about forced compliance rather then understanding.

    Well Vermonters will not comply just because Senator Baruth wishes to tighten the noose and set S 15 aside and it won’t be long before S 15 will be back on the table.

    • Jim Jewett

      You are correct on all counts, Margaret. I find it interesting that Gov. Scott wants to proceed slowly on a marijuana bill so as to see how it works in other states and hence, get it right for Vermont. If he used the same rationale in regard to school consolidation,which is what Act 46 is, he would see it has been an absolute failure in all rural areas where enacted.

  • Bill Rowe

    It is ironic that those who oppose act 15 cite that it there’s no proof it will enhance education or reduce costs. The same thing can be said for Act 46. no proof of anything other than consolidating the power of the state. Our small k-8 school, Folsom in South Hero, is one of the better performers in the state. I fail to understand how merging with a poorer performing school and subjecting students to even longer bus rides will improve their quality of education or lower costs.

    Act 46 needs to be seen for what it is: a power grab by the State education establishment and their allies in the teachers union.

  • Jamie Carter

    ““We would take away the need to merge at all. There is no longer a
    preferred structure, and the need to merge is gone so everybody would
    put the brakes on,” he said.”

    Isn’t that telling… unless we FORCE schools to merge, no one would.

    Mr. Baruth, how arrogant does one have to be to acknowledge that everyone thinks it’s a bad idea but still think that you know best and everyone else is wrong? When you find yourself in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Mr. Baruth should heed that advice. Just because you were in on Act 46 doesn’t mean you can’t realize it was a bad law and fix it, just own up to the fact that Act 46 was a terrible law and make amends by fixing your mistake.

  • Paul E Normandeau

    The Senate Education Committee is so concerned with the end game, as they see it, which is the maximum amount of mergers, whether they make sense or not. They are not interested in the concerns of the rural communities and the impacts of the mergers on those towns. This seems to be turning into “Social Engineering” the ramifications of which will be felt for a long time. I sincerely hope I am wrong and this does not turn into the demise of Vermont’s small communities.