Panelists give Northshire voters little hope of escaping Act 46

Brian Keefe
Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester, speaks during a panel discussion Monday on the proposed Northshire school district merger and the effects of Act 46. Next to him are Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, and Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset. Photo by Jim Therrien/VTDigger
MANCHESTER — Northshire voters shouldn’t bank on revisions to Act 46 in deciding whether to support the merger of seven school districts into the proposed Taconic and Green Regional School District.

That was a major takeaway from a panel discussion Monday at Burr and Burton Academy on Act 46 — which encourages Vermont school districts to consolidate — and the town meeting ballot question on formation of the new regional district.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, one of the six panelists, stressed that she has opposed Act 46 in myriad ways, offering or supporting a number of proposed changes to the 2015 law, all of which were defeated in the Legislature. Among those, she said, were efforts to make the law “more flexible” by encouraging rather than forcing district consolidations.

While there is some support in the Senate for Act 46 revisions, that is not the case in the House, Browning said. “I don’t think that anyone should base their vote on a proposed merger” on an assumption the law will change, she added.

In addition, she and other panelists said, there are tax incentives for districts that merge under an Act 46 format, and continued access to small-schools grants, which might not otherwise be available in the future.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” Browning said, no matter which way the nine towns involved vote Tuesday.

It’s a case, she said, of having to choose uncertainty about how a regional district will operate, or about what will happen if the districts don’t merge.

The state has included tax incentives but also “a hammer” in Act 46 to enforce consolidations if the incentives fail, Browning said. “You are going to have to get married. It is, do you get to choose who you are going to get married to or not,” she said.

Cynthia Browning
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
And there is “no provision for divorce,” she said.

While critical of aspects of Act 46, Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester, Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, and others on the panel praised the work of the 17-member Northshire merger study committee, which developed the merger proposal last year and obtained State Board of Education approval for the plan.

Keefe said he is more concerned at this time about proposed new rules for private schools, which opponents fear could limit school choice options in the Northshire. The state board recently delayed a vote on the final form of those changes, which aim to require private schools accepting public tuition funding to meet more of the regulations public schools must comply with. Keefe said that “this is something we need to watch closely.”

While noting that two state board members will leave soon, allowing Gov. Phil Scott to replace them, the panelists said it remains unclear whether changes to the proposed rules could follow.

Commenting during a question and answer session that followed the panel discussion, Manchester resident Michael Powers said he is concerned that if the Taconic and Green merger is rejected by voters, the state “will cram (a merger) down our throats.” And in the case of the Northshire, he said, “they will really cram it down our throats.”

Powers said such a reaction is likely, given the nearly 800 area residents and local officials who filled the Burr and Burton Academy gymnasium in December for a hearing on the private school rule changes — almost all of the many speakers voicing strong opposition.

Panelist Brian Vogel, a former chairman of the Manchester School Board, advocated voting against the merger. Terming Act 46 “bad legislation,” Vogel said the merger committee “has done a fine job, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

The ultimate goal of Act 46 “is to close small schools,” Vogel said, contending that although there is a four-year moratorium in the merger proposal against school closings, there could be pressure after that period on the new regional school board to close buildings.

He also termed the merger proposals under Act 46 “a one-way ticket,” in which there is no provision for a district or town to exit if the merger “turns out to be a disaster. If you vote to merge, if the merger passes,” he said, “it is done, and you lose local control.”

As a merged district with a single school board, Taconic and Green also would have to become “less local” in its approach to policy and budgetary decisions affecting the nine towns, he said.

Vogel argued that under Act 46 the Northshire also could wait another year before being forced by the state to merge, during which time the law might be revised or the political climate might shift. And he contended it might be possible for a local district to successfully fight an order to merge in court.

Jon Wilson
Jon Wilson, chairman of the Northshire Act 46 merger study committee. File photo by Jim Therrien/VTDigger
Jon Wilson, the chairman of the merger study committee, said the group’s yearlong effort produced a 60-page report detailing the format of the proposed district, which he urged voters to familiarize themselves with. He said the plan represents a well-thought-out response to Act 46 and will provide many benefits.

The larger kindergarten through eighth grade district would have about 1,700 students, Wilson said, and the ability to provide better-funded and more varied educational opportunities throughout the regional district — as well as to continue to provide choice for high school students to Burr and Burton, Long Trail School or other schools.

In addition, he said, having a single, larger school budget will help reduce the tax rate volatility a smaller district can face and can serve to break up the “silo” vision that can develop in smaller districts. He said the counter to the local control argument for school districts is that small districts have fewer options on their own, leading to less control over their educational programs.

He added that closing a school in the regional district would require a 75 percent vote of the school board.

Wilson also noted that the 17-member study group, with representatives from the nine towns, voted unanimously to approve the merger, as did the State Board of Education and principals in the existing five schools.

He acknowledged that many people might not like the “top-down” aspects of Act 46 but said the group worked hard to develop the merger proposal, “and we took lemons and we really worked hard to make lemonade, and make something that was viable.”

Sullivan said that, from what she has learned at the Statehouse, the House Committee on Education “is still solidly behind” the provisions of Act 46, including forcing consolidation if merger incentives are not effective enough. That means, she said, that any support for revisions in the Senate is likely to be stalled in the House.

Sullivan said that leaves the Northshire in the position of possibly losing the incentives — including five years of reduced education taxes — “if we do nothing.”

“Whether or not we believe in the wisdom of Act 46, it is a state law and can’t be ignored, and it is just not going to go away,” she added.

Panelist Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute think tank, termed Act 46 “part of an overall plan by the education bureaucracy to gather more power onto itself.”

He said proposed changes in rules governing private schools in Vermont and new regulation regarding child care programs also are “part of the overall picture.”

Roper said he favors more choice throughout the state, arguing that choice of schools would result in more efficiency in budgeting and greater flexibility in developing education programs. Noting that the Northshire is one of the areas of Vermont with the most choice among public and private schools, he said, “You guys are doing it right.”

If voters disagree with the state’s education policies, Roper and Browning urged them to write legislators or the governor, write letters to editor and take similar actions to make themselves heard.

“And tell your stories on social media,” Roper said.

He added: “It would be interesting to see if any school committees call the state’s bluff” and file suit after being ordered to merge with other districts.

The panel discussion was moderated by Andrew McKeever, of GNAT-TV, which recorded the presentation.

Wilson said another informational session on the merger plan is set for Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Manchester Community Library.

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  • Margaret Maclean

    Currently approx 80 districts around the state have either :
    *Rejected merger at the ballot box
    *Are a part of stalled study committees with no public vote scheduled in the near future
    *Have disbanded study committees prior to a public vote
    *Have explored their options locally but have not formed formal study committees to move forward

    This number will grow as voters reject merger proposals because the proposals save little, offer little, require the loss of so much and are irreversible. Worse in some cases they would actually do harm, by disrupting local operating patterns and threatening school depletion and closure.

    As the article above articulates the pressure is on to voluntarily submit now because the threat of force later is hanging over you.

    Well 80 districts are already saying – We are not buying the fear mongering, our responsibility to our children is of more importance to us than threats from the state.

    While the message from the state house is dramatic changes to the law are not likely this year, that should not be confused with the spin that Act 46 is working, it is primarily because signs of flexibility would result in even more merger defeats at the ballot box.

  • Edward Letourneau

    Public officials have given us three different reasons for Act 46. First it was going to save money, then the object was to improve education quality, and lastly the purpose is to bring efficiency. — I think its time for the fact the fact that the legislature doesn’t know what its doing. All three of those objectives could more effectively be accomplished by having one district in Vermont with one superintendent, and local boards that get to approve field trips because just about everything else is controlled by the state anyway.

  • David Schoales

    The view of “no change this year” depends on who you talk to, and even more on the number of mergers that fail to pass muster with the voters. No one knows how this will come out, but you can be sure the politicians on the House Ed Committee will only will tell you what they want you to believe.

  • Howard Ires

    Don’t vote away your local school board!!!! The Vermont Constitution very clearly states “a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town” – not each county or district or SU – each town. Although it allows other arrangements to be made they are alternates that can only be “permitted.” Act 46 is designed to force us to give up our right as Vermonters to have a town school and determine how our kids are educated. Don’t fall for it!!!!

    • Deanna Robitaille

      Thank you, Howard! I do not know if we have a prayer in reversing this insane law but it is good to hear that others are as upset as we are here in Montgomery.

  • Deanna Robitaille

    The voters in this state need to realize that the vast majority of residential taxpayers will NOT see any decrease in their net taxes due from these so-called tax incentives due to the State’s Income Sensitivity program which supplements tax bills for those whose tax liability exceeds a percentage that the State deems allowable. Any reduction in your tax rate, therefore gross tax due, will be nullified by the State’s computations and payments on their behalf. The only population that will see a reduction in their liabilities would be non-residents, residential properties owners whose income is too high to receive a payment, and commercial tax payers.

    We are being bullied and bribed (under false pretenses) into giving up local control for relief under a severely broken education funding system. Montpelier needs to focus their efforts on two fronts; Education funding reform and cloning the successes of the schools districts that have the lowest per-pupil spending while simultaneously providing exemplary education, such as my own district, Montgomery Elementary School District that provides Pre-K – 8th and school choice. And to add insult to injury…because we have such a low per-pupil rate, we are being slammed with a penalty tax rate increase because our per-pupil rate increase above the allowable rate (a lower base means a lower rate of increase is allowed).

    We need to lobby our reps in the House and make them hear us.