House ed committee kills consolidation flexibility bill

A bill that would have created maximum flexibility under Act 46 was revived briefly Thursday in the House Committee on Education.

However, after lawmakers heard from the bill’s sponsors and several witnesses before voting 9-2 in a straw poll to pull the plug.

H.15 is dead.

The House Education Panel took H.15 off the wall to give it another airing after support at a public hearing on Tuesday night. The move excited activists who want more leeway when building a new school district than the current law or that a Senate bill provides.

Immediately following the decision to take more testimony on the bill to offer more flexibility, Margaret MacLean, of Peacham, sent an email to a network of people who don’t support the current law. Act 46 is a 2015 law that calls for school consolidation.

“There is no guarantee of the outcome of this, but accepting testimony on H.15 is a really, really good thing,’ wrote MacLean, an educator and former member of the State Board of Education. She added: “This is all directly due to your work last night.”

MacLean and others have hung their hopes on companion bills S.15 and H.15, which would elevate “alternative structures.” The legislation would eliminate the preferred merger option in Act 46; change timelines and provide protections around small school grants; and require the State Board of Education to give case-by-case consideration to districts proposing alternatives and to let them apply as soon as they can instead of after November 30, 2017.

Chip Conquest
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger ​

Rep. Charles Conquest, D-Wells River, a sponsor of the bill, said study committee members get frustrated when they work hard but can’t find a structure that all the communities will support.

“If people felt they could explore an alternative and come up with a proposal, present it to the state board and have it looked at and approved, or not, now rather than waiting to the end to find out it isn’t approved” that would be better, Conquest said, adding that H.15 would do that.

Donna Russo Savage, who assists the Agency of Education with Act 46, told lawmakers the state board doesn’t have the time or manpower to do go over alternative structure applications right now.

“As a practical matter, I don’t know how we could get to any of those (alternative plans) any sooner because we are really running on empty to keep up with the mergers,” she said.

Savage said the agency has concerns with H.15 because it might put a stop to the forward momentum. S.122 is a better approach, she said because it addresses small steps that bring more flexibility.

Next week, a merger vote in the White River Valley Supervisory Union could be affected if lawmakers flirt with H.15, according to Geo Honigford, a member of the Act 46 study committee and the South Royalton School Board.

“These mergers happen because of Act 46, because of the hammer and the carrots,” he said, adding that communities in his study committee vote on Tuesday.

If the people who are not supportive think lawmakers “might approve watering down the whole Act, they will splash that all over the place – vote no and we will have more time, or vote no and they will change the law,” he said. Honigford asked for quick action from the ed panel.

The Senate Education Committee considered S.15, but after spending time criss crossing the state to various communities they rejected it and authored S.122, a bill that offers more merger options and changes some deadlines.

“H.15 is the antithesis of S.122,” said Jeff Francis, head of the Vermont Superintendents Association. The senate bill was created to help communities unite, he added.

Francis pointed out that in many places around the state people thought they couldn’t find a merger solution but eventually did. “Geo is right, (if H.15 moves forward) people will stand at ease and not respond to declining enrollments,” he said.

The House Education Committee took a straw poll vote, but not every member was against H.15. Vice Chair Rep. Albert Pearce, R-Richford and Rep. Ben Joseph, D-North Hero voted in favor of the bill.

Pearce said that H. 15 would have helped his area and much of Franklin.

Other lawmakers said there is value in parts of the bill that should be folded into S.122.

“The bill contains several initiatives worth exploring either on their own or as part of a larger Senate bill we will take up shortly,” Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren said, and added H.15 would have dismantled Act 46 and taken the state backward, not forward.

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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • Edward Letourneau

    I wish the lawmakers would respond to “declining enrollments” by comprehending that their taxes, fees and regulations are driving people out of the state and keeping people and business from locating here.

    • Christopher Daniels

      If they’d do this, they’d be making policy decisions based on myth, rather than fact.

      • Matt Young

        Actually it is a fact that Vermont liberals taxes, fees and regulations are driving people out of the state and keeping people and business from locating here. It is pretty doubtful Vermont would actually conduct a study of such things, when the results would run contrary to its practices, politics and spending habits.

    • verplanck

      Isn’t the issue that small town residents want to keep their small schools? Legislators are merely responding to their constituents, as far as I can tell…

      • Jamie Carter

        The issue is more along the lines that residents are tired of paying obscene and ever rising property taxes in the face of declining enrollments. Residents are tired of a complex funding system that has eliminated any direct correlation between costs, budgets, and tax bills. Residents are tired of David Sharpe and the rest of committee members putting lobbyists ahead of Vermonters. If the issues was merely small towns wanting to keep small schools they certainly could raise the funds themselves to pay for their school, or choose not to. But alas, they are not given that option. They get to merge, or be merged because the ego maniacs in Montpelier believe we are all too ignorant to make those choices for ourselves… all to save, AT MOST a fraction of 1% of the Education Budget. Will someone in Bristol PLEASE run against Sharpe.

    • Adrienne Raymond

      As as board member in a merged district, I think I can speak as to whether there are cost savings and efficiencies available. There are. They did not come without some pain and some loss of autonomy in my local school, but the gain in efficiency and equity between our districts is happening and less money. While our new district still showed a small increase in our per pupil cost, our overall budget went down significantly. Our board was able to look at all of our schools in a systemic way and we were better able to allocate staffing and resources by looking at student needs in each building rather than by keeping the status quo because that is more comfortable at the local level. No one likes change, but to keep our small elementary schools, and my town has one, we need the funding and staffing flexibility that a larger district can provide. I was a skeptic and still am about a “mega-style district”, but I am a convert to this +/- 1,000 pupil size district model.

      • Jay Eshelman

        RE: “While our new district still showed a small increase in our per pupil cost, our overall budget went down significantly. ”

        Flawed logic? Per pupil cost increases with overall budget decreases can mean only one thing – enrollment decline. Is that the plan? After all, if Vermont loses all of its students, education costs will go to zero.

  • Margaret Maclean

    “These mergers happen because of Act 46, because of the hammer and the carrots,” he said, adding that communities in his study committee vote on Tuesday.

    That’s correct Geo this not about the achievement of the goals of the law. People vote YES not based on the details of the plan but because of dangled tax incentives backed up by threats – take the carrots now because if you don’t the ” Secretary will do it to you later”. How exactly she will do that remains a mystery with no clarity.

    That’s a pitiful basis on which to make sound decisions for the future of our children’s education, our schools and communities.

    • Andrew Smith

      You are making an incorrect guess about the motivation of YES voters in Royalton.

      I am a YES voter in Royalton, and I am voting YES because this plan is better for children than the status quo.

      I don’t think the sky is falling, I don’t want to send smoke-signals to Montpelier, I’m not reacting to a perceived threat. It’s simple: I just want to see education move forward in our community.

      • Margaret Maclean

        and if others are like you Andrew and make a decision based on the specifics and educational value of what is offered, either yea or nay, that would be appropriate. Geo however stated to the committee that the law only works due to the carrots and the hammer. Making the right decision based on the merits of a specific program should be sufficient.

  • Carin Ewing

    Some folks speak as if merging Boards is the only way to respond to declining enrollment. But it is not even clear that merging Boards is an effective way of doing this. When small towns lose their schools and there is less to draw families to rural Vermont, we are gutting our State, not attracting more students. Act 46 requires districts to put forward a proposal to meet the goals of the Act. Whether this is done through consolidation or otherwise should not be our primary focus. I would expect the BOE to actually delve into the meat of a proposal to evaluate the efficacy of its creative ideas rather than merely glance at whether the Boards are consolidating.

  • John Freitag

    How very sad and shortsighted. What we need to be doing is empowering people and communities not forcing them into actions that albeit well meaning people feel is best by “using carrots and sticks”.
    This past year in Strafford we had a Governance Committee take a long hard look at our town. They were amazed at the number of volunteers involved in both governmental and civic organizations, and the dedication and time they put into making our community the special place it is. There is simply no way we in Vermont can solve the challenges we face simply by regulations and taxes. We need also to rely on the tremendous talent and love of our State by those committed to their schools and communities. While the State should provide the overall framework and guidance, there needs to be flexibility in implementation if we are to achieve the goals we all desire. Please Montpelier, consider letting us work together to succeed, rather than forcing your answers upon us.

  • Jamie Carter

    “Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren said, and added H.15 would have dismantled Act 46 and taken the state backward, not forward.”

    Act 46 was NOT a step forward. I am disappointed in the sheep that sit on the Ed Committee with no ability or inclination to make any type of real reform. They lack the creative ability to solve the crisis that our education system has become, instead fighting to maintain the status quo for fear of upsetting the VNEA. Mitzi has made quite a few errors in here new role as speaker, none so big as the selections for this committee.

  • Jody Normandeau

    So Donna Russo-Savage told the legislators that the board does not have the time to consider alternatives. They seem to have plenty of time to consider the mergers that they want. What makes an alternative proposal any different in time needed than the preferred structure other than they just rubber stamp the preferred? Very democratic!

  • Rick Cowan

    Here in Windham Northeast 3 of our 4 towns voted against the proposed merger, dooming it. We wanted to retain school choice while the big players behind Act 46–School Superintendants Association and Teachers Union–deliberately framed the act in a way that kills choice. They are following same playbook they used to deprive VT of charter schools a generation ago. Anything that challenges their monopoly is DOA. Sad to read that Ms. Savage and her colleagues “don’t have time to consider alternative plans” … when flexibility is exactly what we need to make the act succeed here in our corner of the state.

  • Jason Gaddis

    Thank you to the House Committee and to all who have the vision and sense to follow through with the very necessary efforts at hand; your work and integrity is appreciated.