“This was tough work. We took a lot of testimony. There are widespread views in this committee, in the Legislature and across the state about how we move from where we are now to the future for our kids,” Chair David Sharpe, D-Bristol, told his committee Wednesday evening.
In general, House Education stuck with the Senate’s new structures for school district mergers, but the House panel did slightly alter one. It also accommodated requests from more than 30 House members to add more language from H.15, a bill that Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said would have maximized flexibility under Act 46 to the point of gutting its intent. Act 46, passed in 2015, pushes districts to merge into larger governance structures.
The revised bill, S.122, provides more ways for districts to combine, some with incentives such as tax breaks and grants; extends some deadlines; and tries to address concerns lawmakers heard at a public hearing this month.
When the legislative session began, members of the Senate Education Committee went on field trips across the state to find out what was and wasn’t working with Act 46 and previous laws pushing school districts to merge into larger groupings.
The result was S.122, a bill that creates three new regional education district merger options. It applies to areas where geographic isolation is a problem; where districts don’t align in the grades they operate or tuition; or where there are significantly differing levels of indebtedness between districts.
The legislation also extends timelines if voters have turned down a merger proposal or if another district wants to join.
The legislation provides schools with transition grants and frees up grant requirements so money can be used for community engagement.
The House Education Committee altered the Senate’s option for three districts to merge and allow one school district to attach to the unified union.
Under Act 46 and previous education merger law, at least four districts must come together for them to qualify for tax breaks or get to keep their small-schools grants and other protections.
In the Senate’s plan, the three merging districts would get the incentives and small-school grants. The district that remains the same but attaches to the unified union would not. But it wouldn’t be subject to a statewide plan the State Board of Education is to finalize in 2019 for districts that haven’t merged.
House members replaced the Senate language with a similar regional education district merger option they are calling a three-by-one-by-one.The language was based on an amendment from Rep. Ben Joseph, D-North Hero, who represents communities that voted on a unification plan but didn’t all agree to merge.
Voters in three of four Grand Isle school districts participating in the Act 46 study group said yes. But residents of one — South Hero — decided against joining the new union, and Alburgh to the north decided not to vote.
Joseph’s amendment would have extended the Senate’s proposal to include a fifth district. Under his scenario, Alburgh would also have the option of joining the supervisory union but remaining a separate district. But only the merging districts would get financial incentives.
Members of the committee were OK with everything except the tax breaks and small-school grant protections.
Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, said that when legislators wrote Act 46 they did not intend for such small mergers. “If we had said all you have to do to satisfy the merger was to get three districts of any size together and then attach at least one, I don’t think we would have thought that satisfied the goals of Act 46. That is a low bar,” Beck said.
In the end, the bill will exempt the merged districts from the state plan, but nothing else.
Last week, more than 30 lawmakers signed a letter to the committee members asking them to include three options from H.15. The signatories threatened to pull support for S.122 when it reached the floor if the panel didn’t comply.
“A group of more than 30 legislators reticent about voting for S.122 asked us to make certain changes to make them more inclined to vote” for it, according to Sharpe.
The “gang of 30,” as it is being called in committee deliberations, wanted the State Board of Education to have to adhere tightly to Act 46 and not “impose any additional requirements” when deciding on rules for districts proposing something other than a merger as outlined in the law.
The 30 also wanted to lower the number of students required to be enrolled in a combined school district from 1,100 to 500 to allow small districts to join into what have become known as “alternative structures.”
Their final request was a change in the deadline for submitting an alternative structure proposal to the secretary of education from Nov. 30 to six months after the State Board of Education approves rules guiding the process for school districts wanting to go down this path.
The bill that passed out of committee honored all three requests with some adjustments. The panel included language stating the rules for the alternative structure process cannot be “more stringent” than anything in the law.
The state board approved draft rules Tuesday and sent them to the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for review.
Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe told lawmakers last week the proposed rules are “straightforward” and “not controversial.” She said they stripped down the amount of data school districts are required to submit to prove their case to match what is available on the Agency of Education’s website.
The agency wants proposals from school districts that are not choosing to merge, so it can know what locals want for their future, according to Holcombe.
“We need to be able to act in a way that is consistent with local intent,” she said, adding, “we want to honor local intent.”
The House Education Committee changed the submission date for alternative structures from Nov. 30 to six months after the rules are finalized or Jan. 31, 2018, whichever is sooner.
Lawmakers didn’t lower the final student enrollment count for districts applying for an alternative structure to 500, because they feared creating governance structures that were not more sustainable. But they did lower the minimum number to 900.
The new merger structures proposed in the Senate bill have no student count requirements. Lawmakers are trying to facilitate more larger school districts, so fewer places will have to pursue an alternative structure.
The bill also puts in writing the process by which the secretary of education will develop the statewide plan. Alternative plans can be submitted by school districts or a group of school districts after Oct. 1, and the state board can approve an alternative proposal anytime on or before Nov. 30, 2018. The secretary will engage in conversations with communities about their proposals; they can amend or change their plans during the back and forth and can testify before the state board.
Sharpe said he hopes this section will bring “comfort and clarity” to those who have been concerned about how the agency and board will evaluate alternative plans.
The House Education panel also added language allowing local school districts that end up merging based on the statewide plan to meet and draft articles of agreement for their new school districts. They will have three months to draft and approve the articles.
The revised legislation also adds:
- A provision hastening the date when the state board has to list what school districts it considers geographically isolated and thus not required to comply with Act 46. The bill gives the board and Education Agency until Sept. 30 to publish a list and the reasoning behind it. The deadline had been July 1, 2018.
- An allowance for Lemington to merge into the NEK Choice School District at a different tax rate so it isn’t locked into an artificially high rate.
- A provision to help smooth out elections and appointments for vacancies on a new unified union school board.
- A stipulation that districts that become part of a modified unified union school district won’t reap the tax benefits of unifying if they don’t merge for all grades. The provision applies to merged districts that began operation after July 1, 2015.