BRATTLEBORO – After 19 months of complex, contentious school district merger talks in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, two top state education officials visited Brattleboro on Wednesday night to help sort things out.
Donna Russo-Savage, principal assistant to the state education secretary, and Brad James, Vermont’s education finance manager, answered questions and walked local officials through the intricacies of Act 46 and its recent update, Act 49.
But they wouldn’t offer any guarantees or a clear direction for the supervisory union’s educational future.
“I’m not going to be telling anybody what they should do,” Russo-Savage said. “That is for you to decide how you are going to proceed.”
Sitting a short distance from several protesters holding anti-Act 46 signs, Russo-Savage also made clear she wouldn’t get into any debates about the controversial law.
“If any of you have things that you want to say about why this is a horrible thing to do, if you wait until after Brad and I leave, that’s great,” she said. “Because we have no power to change it.”
Act 46, approved by the Legislature in 2015, pushes school districts statewide to merge into larger administrative entities in an effort to lower costs and increase educational opportunities.
But Brattleboro-based Windham Southeast, which is one of the state’s largest supervisory unions in terms of enrollment, has struggled to come up with a merger plan.
That’s in part due to ongoing opposition to the concept of creating one large school board for the region. It’s also because Vernon dropped out of Act 46 talks last year in an effort to preserve the town’s unique school choice setup.
Earlier this year, Windham Southeast’s Act 46 study committee asked state officials for help in deciding how to proceed.
That spurred the visit from James and Russo-Savage. Before taking her job with the Agency of Education, Russo-Savage spent years advising the Legislature on education matters and is considered an authority on Act 46.
Russo-Savage said Act 49, which the Legislature approved this year, has two provisions relevant to Windham Southeast’s structure and current situation.
First, the union now has until Nov. 30 to put a merger vote before its residents – a reprieve from the previous July 1 date.
“So there is a little bit more time for you to get your ducks in a row,” Russo-Savage said.
Also, the law gave Vernon special dispensation to legally separate from the Brattleboro regional school union. That would allow Vernon to go its own way while the remaining districts — Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney — consider an Act 46 merger among themselves.
In two previous votes, Dummerston opposed Vernon’s exit from the union. The new legislative language allows Vernon to vote itself out; the town has scheduled that vote for July 18.
“That definitely changes your situation,” Russo-Savage said.
She declined, however, to say what merger setup might be best for Windham Southeast, deferring to the local Act 46 study committee.
Russo-Savage said local officials must focus on the two primary goals of Act 46 – educational opportunity and equity; and fiscal efficiency and transparency.
“Merger by itself isn’t going to advance the goals of Act 46,” she said. “What merger can do in certain circumstances is create more flexibility so that it is easier and there are more options for communities to (reach) those goals together.”
The local study committee still is considering creation of a four-town Windham Southeast Supervisory District, with each district considered “necessary” – meaning approval by all four would be needed.
Russo-Savage told officials that, if they want to get that proposal before the State Board of Education in September, they should wrap up their work in August.
The fate of that merger plan in Windham Southeast is unclear, as some residents have lobbied hard against it. At Wednesday’s meeting, several attendees held signs bearing slogans such as “Town school boards are not the problem” and “Too many issues for a single board.”
Russo-Savage explained a few other merger options and said Windham Southeast school boards could ask state officials to allow them to retain their current governance structure.
Such a request would be due early next year, but it comes with a big risk: Act 46 empowers the State Board of Education to draw up an education plan for Vermont by the end of November 2018, and there are no guarantees the board will accept a district’s pitch to remain untouched by Act 46.
For instance, the state board could decide that Dummerston – where local Act 46 critics have been most outspoken – must merge its district whether the town wants to or not.
School boards that are not voluntarily merging must “self-evaluate” their ability to meet Act 46 goals; talk with other districts about working together; and ultimately submit to the state a “written explanation of how it is that what you’re proposing is the best thing for your students and your taxpayers,” Russo-Savage said.
The state board’s ultimate authority in Act 46 merger matters doesn’t sit well with some in Windham Southeast.
Dummerston resident Paul Normandeau told Russo-Savage there are “a number of communities who are struggling at this stage throughout the state with merging.”
“How do you think the politics would be for the State Board of Education to force mergers among not just a minority of schools, but a large number of schools throughout the state?” Normandeau asked.
“I have no idea, politically,” Russo-Savage said. “But I do know what the legislation says. And the legislation requires the state board to merge districts to the extent necessary to create equitable governance structures that are sustainable.”
Despite all the talk about alternative proposals, Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley argued that the extensive work of the local study committee – and the current, four-town merger plan – shouldn’t be discounted or discarded.
“We do have a great school district, but many students are not getting equitable programming based on the services that we have now,” Stahley said.
At the same time, the opportunities presented by a merger show “a savings that we didn’t expect and much better services for our schools,” he said.