Education

Education committee endorses more flexibility under Act 46

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.

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

Nicole Mace
Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. File photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger
“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.

Money Matters

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.

Vernon Elementary School
Vernon Elementary School. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
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.

Timeliness

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.

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  • Jay Eshelman

    RE: S.122 Sec. 3. THREE-BY-ONE SIDE-BY-SIDE STRUCTURE; REGIONAL 8 EDUCATION DISTRICT INCENTIVES 14 (b) The incentives provided in 2010 Acts and Resolves No. 153, Sec. 4 15 shall be available to the Merged District and shall not be available to the 16 Existing Districts.

    In my humble opinion, denying incentives, be they monetary tax incentives, transition facilitation grants, fees for consulting services or other so-called ‘supervisory union adjustments’, to districts choosing not to merge (i.e. Existing Districts) is unconstitutional under various citations in Brigham v. State (96-502); 166 Vt. 246; 692 A.2d 384, including but not limited to the provisions of Vermont’s Common Benefits Clause.

    • Jason Gaddis

      Not to mention phenomenally unfair as an expansion of inequity given that much of what the Brigham decision sought is not currently realized…

      • Adrienne Raymond

        I have to agree. They have moved beyond supporting “choice” districts to punishing those that don’t close their high schools and move to choice. Just what is the true focus of this fix?

        • Jason Gaddis

          Thank you Adrienne. One has to wonder what the true focus might be and what set of individuals or special interest groups the proposal is intended to benefit and who will ultimately be harmed. Sen. Baruth is acting very much like Jeff Sessions.

          • Margaret Maclean

            Senate Ed has tied itself in knots coming up with exception by exception. Next we will see – a side by side by side by side by side by side model – an SU called a merger in disguise.

            Many of these tweaks apply to places that do not need them.
            Most of these tweaks will result in supervisory unions, perhaps with smaller numbers of boards and greater numbers of students, as small SU’s dissolve to become join larger ones.

            They are intended to preempt alternative structures as described in the law and as David Schoales points out above.

            What difference does it matter if you remain an independent district within an SU because of a 3/1 merger or you remain an independent district via an alternative proposal and the secretaries plan? None. Except I guess you get that “sense of belonging” Nicole Mace is talking about a few months sooner.

            Seems like Senate Ed is willing to do anything to be able to call Act 46 a big success and keep the merger train rolling.

          • Jason Gaddis

            A side-by-side and especially a 3×1 are not true mergers by the standard that understands that such configurations are ‘separate-but-not-equal’. These are Jim Crow in disguise and only satisfy the desire to reduce boards and not to bring the benefits that actual merger would provide. They are paper victories and ensure the further issues of continued inequality.

          • Randall Szott

            “It gives them some sense of belonging, and they don’t have to wait for the state board plan,” – Nicole Mace

            Brilliant. This is like forcing someone to marry one of their friends under threat of being forced to marry a stranger. Some “sense of belonging!”

        • Stacey M Bradley-Wilbur

          Why would a school district that was not involved in the merger need incentives in the way of tax incentives or grants? The whole purpose of offering the grants and tax incentives is basically to help defray the cost of merging the districts. Merging does not come free. There is a great deal of structuring to be done with staff and boards coming under one structure. It means reestablishing and rebargaining all contracts for staff, supplies, transportation, equipment, ect. whether they are due or not. It means paying for the cost of voting and running multiple boards still while setting up a new one. Then the tax incentives are put in place to help level all the merging towns’ taxes to the same average level over 4-5 years so no one town takes a hard hit in one year. In a 3×1 the single district wouldn’t be doing any of this and therefore should NOT get incentives. Nothing is changing for them. I think you people are mistaken in believing that these incentives are “rewards” when in fact the intention of the law is that they encourage, yes, but by defraying and lessening the financial impact of the process to the merging towns’ taxpayers.

          • Jay Eshelman

            So what happened to:

            ‘Act 46, Sec. 2. GOALS …… to move the State toward sustainable models of education governance….to:
            (3) maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff;
            (4) promote transparency and accountability; …
            (5) …delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value?’

            Do you honestly agree that only merged districts deserve to have their costs defrayed? Not only is Act 46 unconstitutional, it’s a fiscal and educational sham.

          • Amir Flesher

            If Act 46 is unconstitutional, then challenge it in court.

            I am curious to know what aspect of the Vermont and/or U.S. Constitution it violates.

          • Jay Eshelman

            The Equal Protection Clause (Federal) and the Common Benefits Clause (Vermont).

          • Adrienne Raymond

            Who do you think is doing all of the merger work in these instances? The SU staff that provides services to both the merged districts and the district standing alone. They also play a part in transportation, SpEd, and myriad other shared operations. Do we ask the SU to bill in 15minute increments so that no costs are shared? I think realistically there will be costs to the entire SU structure and the incentives should pay for them.

  • Margaret Maclean

    Countless school districts in Vermont have held lengthy merger discussions over the past 18 months and have at this time – moved beyond merger.

    They have defeated merger at the ballot box [27 towns, some multiple times].
    They have disbanded committees or never formed formal committees in the 1st place
    [ 50 towns] or they are in stalled 706b committees with no votes planned [ 16 towns ].

    For the most part they are committed to developing plans to meet the goals of the law through creative Alternative Structures and they are having exciting conversations about this opportunity.

    They are working as equal players looking at how to improve their supervisory unions to better meet the goals of the law and in some cases their plans are quite advanced and nearly ready for submittal.

    The minor tweaks being considered by Senate Education would impact very few towns and for the vast majority would not provide a pathway towards meeting the goals of the law that is as effective as an Alternative Structure can be.

    • Jason Gaddis

      The tweaks weaken and cheapen the hard work that has been accomplished by so many towns to date. The remaining decisions will be hard but should not be allowed to play by a different, weaker, set of rules.

      • Margaret Maclean

        Excuse me? Isn’t this about achievement of the goals of the law?

        What you are talking about is compliance with rules.
        The rules for Alternative Structures are, the state assures us, ask Donna Russo Savage, the same standard set as the rules for preferred structures.

        No one is asking for weaker rules. Towns are asking for pathways to achievement of the goals of the law that work in their areas of the state. These districts are working hard collecting evidence and making a case why the preferred structure is not the best way for them to achieve the goals of the law in their area due to their local circumstance.

        • Jason Gaddis

          An alternative structure is a wimp-out and S.122 cheapens the work done by many to date in it’s advocacy for alternatives. One wonders what the true intentions really are as indicated elsewhere below…

          • Margaret Maclean

            Thats one big assumption your making Jason I guess you haven’t read an Alternative Structure proposal lately.

            An alternative structure can in some areas of the state BETTER MEET the goals of the law than a preferred one can.
            Districts are working hard to gather evidence to demonstrate this.

            Thats why Alternative Structures were included in the law in the first place.

            They are a legitimate pathway to meeting the goals of the law just as preferred and conventional options are.

            H15 would recognize this by leveling the playing field and allowing all 96 districts wrestling with this issue a viable way forward.

            The senate contortions – not so much.

          • Jason Gaddis

            I am glad we agree on the senate contortions.

          • Pamela Fraser

            Alternative Structures have been a part of the law from the beginning, so how could they be a “wimp-out” if they were an option written into the law? Plus, early mergers received incentives as reward for their work/decision-making, so why is there resentment for those that cannot “conventionally” merge without major inequities and loss of quality?

          • Jay Eshelman

            There is nothing in Federal or State statute asserting that only certain school districts qualifying with one form of educational governance, determined ‘early’ or otherwise, deserve preferential financial benefits at the expense of those districts choosing another form of governance. The ‘Equal Protection’ and ‘Common Benefits Clauses’ are clear in this regard.

    • Stacey M Bradley-Wilbur

      So if it opens up the pathway for a few districts while still holding onto the intention of Act 46, that means it shouldn’t be done? What will it hurt those that it won’t help? Those districts have Alternative Structures. The State Board of Education had already stated that a 3×1 was not possible under current Vermont State law without this change as an Alternative structure. So you are incorrect in stating that these changes could be done as an Alternative. According to current law they cannot be and would be shot down without this legislative change of law. For some districts this might indeed be the best of all options versus Alternatives.

      • Margaret Maclean

        Thanks Stacey, these pathways are not yet law. H15 would offer many more places a pathway to the achievement of the goals of the law than these few exceptions do.

        Many of the new options Senate Ed has configured impact situations related to choice and operation which are already protected in the law in section 4. What I am saying is these routes do not offer anything different for these towns than an alternative structure does.

        They will remain independent districts in the end regardless of if they do so via this pathway or they do so via an Alternative structure.

        H15 would help all 96 towns struggling with the rules but seeing an opportunity to meet the goals in alternative ways.

        As a community member from a town that is impacted by one of these new pathways like yours my preference would be for a law that helps everyone struggling with Act 46 rather than a law that just chooses to help a few.

  • David Schoales

    Senator Baruth should have another look at the law- an option under Section 9, Self Evaluation, says “The board of the district, solely on behalf of its own
    district or jointly with the boards of other districts… (A) proposes to retain its current governance structure…” That seems to open the door to member districts of an SU proposing they retain their boards and find alternative means of satisfying the goals of the law.

    • Randall Szott

      Sen. Baruth seems to believe that the spirit of the law (improving education and its governance with costs and accountability as major factors) is less important than *his* interpretation of the law. His insistence on preemptively denying alternative structure options to schools makes a mockery of the law. He is willing to sacrifice successful schools on the altar of “preferred structures” even if that means closing them. That is heartbreaking. But *this* is Orwellian – “We want to set it up so people can voluntarily merge.” Voluntarily?

  • Jim Abbott

    Vernon’s demand for choice is all about sending Vermont tax dollars to private schools in Massachusetts. I hope the legislature requires that all taxpayer funds stay in Vermont. Helping rich families get a tuition break at out of state schools was never the goal of Act 60.