Tale of three towns: Act 46 realities pressure small schools

Act 46
Ludlow Elementary School sixth-grader Josh Buckley expresses an opinion on the future of Black River High School. Town voters rejected a plan to close the school but still face financial pressures. File photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger
The stories playing out as three communities consider the fate of their small high schools illustrate the difficult choices facing some districts that haven’t finalized mergers already.

Voters in Cabot and Rochester will decide Tuesday on separate merger proposals that would close their high schools. Ludlow residents faced the same question weeks ago and voted against a plan that would have closed their high school. But if these districts don’t enter into mergers, all three face tax increases and stand to lose state grants.

The first year of Act 46 brought more district unifications than expected. But the second year is ending with smaller and more unusual combinations among the remaining communities.

The law requires communities to discuss voluntarily merging into larger districts meant to be more sustainable while meeting educational and financial goals.

But when not everyone agrees with the plan their merger committee chooses, neighbors are pitted against each other, according to Bruce Schmidt, chair of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union board and a member of its study committee. The supervisory union includes Ludlow and several surrounding towns.

“This has been trying for everyone, and I don’t think the Legislature, the state board or the Agency of Education realize how much work and what has gone into this and how much people care about this,” he said.

The proposal Ludlow voters rejected would have closed Black River High School in Ludlow and sent students to Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon. Mount Holly, which shares the union high school with Ludlow, voted for the plan.

At the first joint school board meeting since the vote, the impact of Act 46 was palpable. Mount Holly board members wanted to dissolve their union high school district and leave for Mill River. They also refused to get involved in another Act 46 study group with Ludlow, which has more representation and could outvote Mount Holly.

That is exactly what happened to Cabot. Its study group members voted against a merger proposal with Danville and Twinfield —which serves Plainfield and Marshfield — because it calls for closing Cabot’s high school. They also fear a new union board would eventually close their elementary school, which needs extensive maintenance and repairs.

In Rochester, the fate of the high school is up in the air. Residents agreed in April to join with Royalton and Bethel even though the town would no longer have a formal high school, but rather a secondary program in environmental studies. The merger may still go forward, but Rochester residents are revoting Tuesday and have started asking whether they have other options.

Small-school realities

Cabot has 57 students in grades nine through 12, with 16 students making up the largest class. The school is built around a program called project-based learning, and last year it was named the No. 1 high school in the state by US News & World Report, based on test results and graduation rates. Still, the community joined an Act 46 study group to see if it could expand opportunities for its students, according to Chris Tormey, who represented Cabot.

Cabot residents have long considered whether to close their high school. This meeting took place in 2013. File photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger
Tormey said Cabot recognizes what declining enrollment does to a school and its budget. School budgets are based on per-pupil spending. He had hoped to find a way to use the strengths from each of the three high schools to put something together for students. But unlike Cabot, he said, Twinfield and Danville didn’t sense the need to change very drastically.

“If Danville isn’t where Cabot is now, it may just be a question of time,” he said. Ultimately, the two other school districts found Cabot to be too expensive.

Some in town said they know the status quo isn’t acceptable and they are open to merging, but they would like to look at other school districts in the area. “Danville and Twinfield are not sought-after schools,” said Cabot resident Rory Thibault.

While Thibault doesn’t support the idea of high school choice because he worries low-income students would not have the same educational opportunities, the idea has come up in Cabot. Some residents also suggested flipping their school from public to private.

Rochester residents have been mulling their options for some time, including tuitioning students in grade nine through 12 elsewhere. The high school grades are down to 37 students, and the largest class has 13 kids in it, while the smallest has seven.

Steve Dale, the education consultant who helped Rochester, Royalton and Bethel with their Act 46 proposal, said there is a real “immediacy” for Rochester. “They have identified for a long time that there are significant challenges related to educating small numbers of students at the high school level, and that problem is not going way and needs to be solved,” he said.

Rochester resident Tim Pratt agreed that something needs to change — the question is how. “We have known for years at some point we were going to have to do something with our high school students, and that time is now,” he said.

Dale said the community can’t stand much more of a tax burden. “The financial consequences of inaction are enormous for Rochester,” he said.

School districts that don’t merge face the loss of state supports such as small school grants. The only way to hold onto the grants without merging after July 2019 is by being declared geographically isolated.

The Legislature has asked the State Board of Education to come up with a way of determining geographic isolation and list school districts that qualify. It is due by the end of September.

Small unmerged districts will have to reapply for the grant annually, with no guarantees.

Another support that many districts rely on — so-called phantom students — is being phased out regardless. That mechanism raises the on-paper enrollment to ease the financial impact of a decline.

Numbers tell the tale

Cabot, Rochester and Ludlow all received a boost from small-school grants and phantom students in fiscal year 2017. Rochester had the highest figures among the three towns, with a grant of $164,885 and 32.38 phantom students, according to the Agency of Education.

VTDigger asked the Agency of Education what education spending and tax rates would look like for Cabot, Rochester and Ludlow if they no longer had their small-school grants and phantom students. This was based on fiscal 2017 education spending in each district.

Education spending and tax rates would go up in all three towns, according to the agency analysis. Spending per equalized pupil — a figure that reflects phantom students — also goes up, and in Cabot and Ludlow it triggers a tax penalty because it crosses the excess spending threshold.

In Cabot, spending per equalized pupil was $16,962 this year, but without the grants and support it would have been $18,588, and the equalized tax rate would go from $1.75 to $1.92, according to the agency.

Rochester’s equalized per-pupil cost would go from $15,558 to $22,157, and the equalized tax rate would jump from $1.60 to $2.28.

Black River High School
Black River High School is in Ludlow. File photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger
Ludlow is part of a union high school district, but triggering the excess spending penalty would bring equalized per-pupil spending up from $16,802 to $18,060. The equalized tax rate would be $1.80 instead of $1.73.

Schmidt, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union board chair, said Ludlow voters’ message was to go back and try to find a way to keep their high school in their community. “We got that loud and clear,” he said.

The problem for Ludlow residents who want to keep their high school open is that they need the Mount Holly students to stay sustainable. But Mount Holly voted for the merger plan, and many now feel they are being held hostage to the union school district agreement.

At a recent meeting, Two Rivers board member Susan Barton said she would be glad to see Mount Holly leave the union. “I’m tired as a Ludlow taxpayer of paying a lot of money for things for our students because Mount Holly doesn’t pay for them. … I’m more than happy to give you guys up. It saves me money.”

Mount Holly residents disputed Barton’s assertion.

As the two school boards struggled to find a way forward, Schmidt reminded Ludlow residents they don’t have enough students to keep things going and they need to study how much it will cost them to continue to operate their school. “I really think Ludlow needs to understand you are going to have a school of 100 kids,” Schmidt said.

An unofficial citizens group called Black River Area Innovation Network has been meeting to try to come up with alternatives to the Act 46 plan. Members have been considering taking Black River High School private or beefing up programming, both of which are long and costly prospects, or possibly joining the Quarry Valley school district serving Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland.

But all this takes time to research, and Act 46 deadlines are looming. Communities have to vote on a merger plan by Nov. 30, making it difficult for these three communities to find new partners and new options in time.

Even if Cabot and Rochester want to explore school choice or taking their schools private, they still have to meet the deadline.

“Choice districts are also subject to Act 46,” said Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “Districts that tuition have to get together with other districts that tuition in the same way. It doesn’t eliminate your need to work out a plan under Act 46.”

For now, Ludlow and Mount Holly have to find a way to compromise and respect each other’s position, Schmidt said. “It is very personal, and it is very hard. I say that as much to the Ludlow board members and community members as to Mount Holly. We have to be careful what we wish for,” he said.

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