The Senate Committee on Education approved legislation Tuesday giving towns more flexibility for merger options under Act 46, the state school district consolidation law.
In a unanimous vote, the committee’s six members passed S.122 that gives districts more time to form alliances and more options for merging boards.
Lawmakers said they are trying to help parts of the state that have not found it easy to meet the goals of Act 46.
The Senate Education panel determined that some communities are finding it difficult to merge because of state rules that prohibit unification between towns that offer school choice and those that operate public schools for the same grades.
In addition, merger discussions in some towns have been complicated by inhospitable travel routes or significant differences in debt levels.
To address these problems, lawmakers created three new regional education district merger options.
Deadlines for mergers would be extended if proposals are voted down or if another district wants to join. The legislation provides schools with transition grants and frees up grant requirements so funds can be used for community engagement.
The bill also requires the State Board of Education to act more quickly when supervisory unions want to make adjustments.
The bill does not strip rulemaking authority from the State Board of Education. Nor does it change the makeup of the board or how the secretary of education is appointed. Some lawmakers have called for such changes.
A study committee that would make recommendations on rulemaking for private schools remains in the committee’s miscellaneous education bill.
New Merger Options
For school districts to qualify for one of the new merger options, they must be geographically isolated and want to merge but have trouble because some towns operate a school and some towns tuition certain grades, or there are “greatly differing levels of debt” between the towns.
Voters must approve the new mergers by Nov. 30.
Three new side-by-side merger options are designed to preserve school choice.
One lets four school districts merge, two to a side, cutting in half the number of school boards. In the old regional education district version that came from Act 156, one side had to be a merger between two school districts that operate all grades pre-K through 12. The Senate committee eliminated that requirement.
Another option brings at least five school districts together: two mergers of at least two districts each, with a lone school district that tags along.
Last week’s failed side-by-side merger proposal in Rutland Central Supervisory Union could benefit from this language by bringing along an additional district.
Voters in Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland agreed to merge their pre-K-through-12 school districts into one on Town Meeting Day. Middletown Springs and Wells — which both operate pre-K through eight — would have made up the other side of a traditional RED merger. Middletown Springs voters agreed, but the plan was rejected by one vote in Wells.
The proposal could stay the same, and the town of Wells could hold a revote. But this legislation opens the door for Ira, a structurally and geographically isolated school district that tuitions all grades, to join this group. Ira wouldn’t get any tax incentives, but it would have a place and wouldn’t be waiting to see what the state board decides to do with unmerged districts in 2019.
The plans are designed to help isolated school districts that could end up orphaned, according to Nicole Mace, who heads the Vermont School Boards Association.
“It gives them some sense of belonging, and they don’t have to wait for the state board plan,” she said.
In Windsor Southeast there are three districts that give students school choice for some grades and one that operates pre-K through 12th grade. One of the new merger options — called a three-by-one — could help this area, which has been stymied because of its different operating systems. Under this bill, the three tuitioning districts can merge under one school board and exist beside Windsor, which would retain its board.
But even this plan would require some changes that are anything but minor. Among the tuitioning districts, one operates pre-K through six, and the others pre-K-8; they would need to teach and have choice for the same grades before merging.
The three merging districts would reap tax benefits, but Windsor would not because it wouldn’t be merging into a new structure.
The Northeast Kingdom towns of Peacham, Walden, Waterford and Barnet also could merge under this option.
“These side-by-sides are extremely elaborate attempts to preserve choice,” said Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Committee on Education. “We want to set it up so people can voluntarily merge.”
The committee bill replaces S.15 and a House counterpart.
Margaret MacLean, an advocate for S.15, said the tweaks won’t help enough towns. A number of school districts have moved past the point of merging and are looking at alternative structures, MacLean said.
“S.15 would have created a level playing field. These towns will continue, however, and are not daunted by uneven ground,” she said.
Baruth said S.15 misunderstood what the authors of Act 46 meant when they developed alternative structures. “S.15 said the way you are now in a supervisory union can be recognized as an alternative structure. That is a misreading of Act 46, and the committee ultimately didn’t go down that path,” he said.
Baruth said the committee bill creates more flexible structures. “It puts into law alternative structures they can merge into,” he said.
The debt provision addresses a problem that has stalled merger talks in Washington Central. It would give districts with different levels of indebtedness a way out.
In other areas, such as Shelburne and Williston, there is a disproportionate debt from one district to the next. This fact, however, didn’t stop the two districts from merging, according to Mace. The school boards association said the change is a “significant shift” nearly 20 months into the merger game.
The bill gives the town of Vernon temporary authority to withdraw from its union school district. Vernon has been trying to leave because it has a different operating system, but because all the towns in the union district have to also agree by vote, the attempt has been stymied by voters in one town.
Under this legislation, a majority of Vernon voters have to approve leaving by July 1, 2019, because the deal expires the next day. The secretary of education then has to recommend the withdrawal, and the state board has to approve the plan.
Lawmakers didn’t want the timeline to be the reason a group of districts couldn’t merge. They would alter the law so districts working in good faith toward a merger will have more flexibility.
Any area that has put a plan to voters and had it turned down would have more time to merge. Lawmakers also provided a chance for new school districts to join a merger plan.
There are opportunities for more areas to tap into transition funds as well, and grants meant for consultants can also be used for community outreach.
Mace commended the Senate committee for going on field trips across the state to speak with study committee members. “This bill is clearly the product of those conversations,” she said.
Since Act 46 was signed in June 2015, 96 towns have voted to merge 104 school districts into 20 new structures. Sixty percent of Vermont students already are or soon will be living in consolidated school districts.
This approach doesn’t significantly change the rules of the game that those parts of the state played by, but still recognizes there are areas that need more flexibility to move forward, Mace said.