Vernon votes to pull out of high school union

Vernon residents arrive at the town office Tuesday to vote on whether the town school district should withdraw from the regional educational union. Voters approved the withdrawal, 238-47. Photo by Kristopher Radder/Brattleboro Reformer

VERNON – When it comes to school governance and school choice, Vernon voters have reaffirmed their desire to go their own way.

Residents on Tuesday voted 238-47 in favor of withdrawing the town school district from the regional educational union, known as Brattleboro Union High School District No. 6.

The move allows Vernon – via a special legal provision the Legislature approved – to unilaterally leave the union and pursue its own Act 46 school governance solutions.

It’s still unclear how that might take shape. But proponents had argued that withdrawal was critically important because it allows Vernon to preserve its unique school choice options.

“There are still many questions, but certainly I think Vernon being out of the district gives us far more options,” Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert said Wednesday.

Spurred by Act 46, Vermont’s 2015 law to create larger school governance units, Vernon initially was involved in talks to merge all of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s school districts into one.

But the town dropped out of those talks in spring 2016 when it became clear Vernon’s school choice setup would be jeopardized by a merger with districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney – none of which offers choice.

Vernon’s situation is unique both regionally and statewide: Officials say the town has long operated under a special statute allowing it to be a member of a union high school district while also offering school choice for grades seven through 12.

Officials proposed resolving the Vernon impasse by allowing the town to legally separate itself from the BUHS No. 6 union, allowing the other four towns in that union to continue debating an Act 46 merger among themselves.

Vernon resident Carol Hammond votes Tuesday in an election on whether to withdraw from the regional educational union. Photo by Kristopher Radder/Brattleboro Reformer
Vernon voters OK’d that plan by a 374-124 margin in August 2016. But the withdrawal had to be ratified by the other four towns, and Dummerston twice rejected it.

This spring, the Legislature stepped in with a solution.

Hebert, a Republican House member who represents Vernon and Guilford, led a successful push for special language in the omnibus education bill allowing Vernon to vote itself out of the union. The language applies only to Vernon, officials have said.

That led to Tuesday’s revote on the withdrawal question. Though the town had considered the same issue last year, the Vernon School Board fielded a fair number of inquiries before the vote.

“There were a lot of questions that were really good questions,” Hebert said. “And I think we answered them.”

As was the case before, school board members argued that there were few negatives to leaving the regional district.

For instance, Windham Southeast officials have said that, from the perspective of debts and assets, Vernon’s departure is “a wash” and will not hurt any of the involved districts’ finances.

Also, many of Vernon’s students are expected to continue to attend Brattleboro’s middle and high schools, albeit under a tuition agreement.

Vernon’s district also expects to maintain a relationship with Windham Southeast, preserving services like transportation and professional development. Hebert said unionized school staff would remain in the same bargaining unit.

However, the nature of Vernon’s proposed relationship with the supervisory union remains to be seen.

Vernon officials at one point discussed a contractual agreement with Windham Southeast. But Hebert now is leaning toward exploring a “side-by-side” Act 46 merger that – under changes recently approved by the Legislature – could allow Vernon to join with the other districts while maintaining its independent governance and school choice.

“In any event, we do want to in some way be linked with them,” Hebert said.

Much depends, Hebert said, on the outcome of ongoing Act 46 talks among the other Windham Southeast districts.

“For now, the impact (of withdrawing from BUHS No. 6) is none at all,” he said. “We have to wait and see what the new union is going to be – if they’re going to merge, if they’re going to stay the same.”

Even after Tuesday’s vote in Vernon, a merger of the remaining districts in Windham Southeast is far from a sure thing.

Some residents have questioned whether such a merger would provide more financial flexibility or better educational opportunities – the two main goals of Act 46. And the state Agency of Education, while offering guidance, has declined to recommend a course of action for Windham Southeast.

Superintendent Lyle Holiday, who succeeded the recently retired longtime Superintendent Ron Stahley, said the union’s Act 46 study committee already has modified its draft merger proposal to remove Vernon from the mix.

In that sense, Tuesday’s Vernon vote “should have no impact on the Act 46 merger plans,” Holiday said.

She said officials still expect to submit a merger proposal involving Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney to the State Board of Education for consideration at the board’s September meeting.

If that happens, and if the state board approves the plan, the four towns may vote on a merger Nov. 7, Holiday said.

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  • Jason Gaddis

    It should be noted that one of the main reasons that Vernon wants to maintain school choice is because a segment of the population there sends their children to the nearby, out-of-state, private, Northfield Mount Hermon Academy. A recent article by Annie Waldman from Problica cites that Vermont allows private and out-of-state schools to take over $40 million in public tax dollars annually.

    • Jay Eshelman

      It should also be noted that $40 Million represents the cost for about 2,450 students at about $16,350 per student, while the remaining 87,175 VT K-12 students are educated in Vermont for a cost of $1.425 Billion (that’s Billion w/ a ‘B’ folks), not counting Special Education, Transportation and other local school district costs.

      Tuitioning out-of-state seems to be a good deal for VT taxpayers. Clearly we should let all students, especially those from low income families, use the tuition voucher to attend the school that best suits their needs.

    • Matt Young

      Do children from other states attend and pay tuition to Vermont schools?

      • Jay Eshelman

        Yes. The River Valley Tech Center in Springfield, for example, services students from NY and NH. The RVTC has an extensive online education presence. In fact, there is a move afoot by Campaign for Vermont to develop a statewide marketing and placement program for international students in Vermont’s K-12 schools.

  • Jay Eshelman

    Re: “The legislature in allowing Vernon to unilaterally withdraw from the Brattleboro Union HS has actually mandated an increase in taxes in four towns that will subsidize a decrease in taxes for Vernon – a town that has received special dispensation for decades.”

    This is a misleading statement.

    Vernon’s so called ‘special dispensation’ isn’t all that ‘special’. There are nearly 2500 students in Vermont receiving out-of-state education on the state tuition voucher and the cost per student is less than the cost to attend many Vermont public schools. Taxpayers save money.

    Furthermore, the BUHS will continue to receive the tuition voucher for Vernon students choosing to attend the BUHS. It’s possible, for example, that more Vernon students may choose the BUHS, thereby increasing the revenues from Vernon. All the BUHS has to do is demonstrate that it is the better school for Vernon families.

    • Adrienne Raymond

      VT taxpayers would save more money, if those students attended a local public school. They could be absorbed without much, if any, additional cost since most schools currently have excess capacity. Greater numbers educated for the same total budget = lower per pupil costs. Currently, the majority of VT citizens are subsidizing the very few’s private school education and we are all paying more. Only way for choice to be the cheaper option would be to have total choice with no public schools. When you run, what amounts to 2 side by side systems, neither runs at maximum efficiency- simple fact. Of course in that scenario, equity would be lost to a great number of students and families. Is that the direction you really want?

  • Oliver Olsen

    The statement that BUHS would only receive the statewide average tuition is incorrect. It is true that independent schools only receive the statewide average tuition (unless the voters in that district vote to pay more), but under Vermont law, a non-operating school district must pay the full tuition to a public school. That tuition rate is set annually by the school board of the public school, and adjustments can be made to “true up” the amount the following year if the actual cost per student proves to be higher or lower.

  • Jay Eshelman

    Re: ” In fracturing we risk abandoning the poor,”… etc., etc., etc..

    By ‘fracturing’ (i.e. school choice tuitioning) we allow the poor and disadvantaged to have the same school choice wealthy families already have. And keep in mind that ‘disabled’ students can’t be ‘abandoned’, by virtue of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

  • Matt Young

    What about the children who don’t succeed in the big public education monopoly? Just collateral damage I suppose. Kids are more important than big education union jobs.

  • Jay Eshelman

    Not so. The ‘assessed amount’ (announced tuition) is the amount a public school initially charges a tuitioning school district. When the cost turns out to be higher than the ‘announced tuition’, a public school can bill retroactively for the additional charges (those above the ‘announced tuition’). The ‘additional charges’ are referred to euphemistically as “undercharges”, when a school district spends more than was anticipated and charges the tuitioning school district the additional monies after the fiscal year end.

    It should also be noted that independent schools don’t have the luxury of charging more than the State Average Tuition unless the parents pay or the student receives a scholarship.

    • Adrienne Raymond

      Not true, You cannot charge for most building costs. Pretty much anything that has an equity value stays with the district. IE a new roof or water system, etc does not get charged. Same with bus purchases. It comes to a significant sum. If you look at the overall per pupil costs of union school member towns and those who have choice the union school members are always higher. This is just another way that choice towns see an economic advantage over those towns that actually provide the schools that they frequently send their kids to.

      • Jay Eshelman

        Determining tuition costs is a complicated (too complicated) process.

        Schools can’t charge for all construction costs because the State reimburses school districts for a significant portion of those costs. But schools can charge for the costs of operating those buildings.

        While schools can’t charge for the cost of a school bus, they can charge for transportation under a separate agreement. And they are reimbursed by the State separately too.

        See my post above on the Brattleboro High School costs referenced by Mr. Schneider. Look at the Statement of Revenues on pages 12 and 13. While the tuition charges don’t cover all costs, various other reimbursements do cover them. Brattleboro High School, for example, receives nearly $10 Million of its $27.9 Million budget from other sources. They just aren’t in the ‘tuition’ calculation.

        Again, if school districts lost as much money as some claim they lose, I should think every school district in Vermont would consider closing its schools and tuitioning its students.

  • Oliver Olsen

    How so? The statute that defines what a public school district can bill a non-operating district (16 V.S.A. § 825) is designed to ensure the public school district is fully compensated for the fully loaded cost of serving each student from a non-operating district.

  • Matt Young

    Allowing children and families the choice to go to an appropriate school is very empathetic. I suppose doing so doesn’t show much “empathy” to cronies of the big public education monopoly.

  • Adrienne Raymond

    I was thinking of some of the smaller high schools in VT who for the most part are held dear (understandably) by the town hosting them that require other towns to help support them. The way the Union agreements were written all towns must agree to allow the union to dissolve. This results in towns being held hostage to a school that they would like to leave. It is a very tough situation for all to be in. These conversations have simply been highlighted by Act 46.

  • Matt Young

    Jason, I stand with the children who suffer and don’t succeed in the homogenized, one size fits all, union staffed public factory schools. My hope is that one day people will value children over union teacher jobs, unfortunately thats a foreign concept to many.

  • Jason Gaddis

    Thanks Jay, I look forward to the day when private schools follow the same regulations as public schools. Perhaps you can be a supporter of the new Act 2200 series rules that will bring that accountability more in line with the public system.

  • Andy Davis

    Vernon does have a good deal. They now have access to 7-12 choice and they also wish to maintain their access to services provided by the public school union they just “left”.

    Perhaps we could just use an abbreviation for “one-size-fits-all public school monopoly”. I would suggest “OSFAPSM”. This would free up more space for creative thinking.

    Regarding the statement by Jay Eshelman that “Independent schools can’t discriminate any more than public schools can discriminate.” I would like to believe this but it goes counter to my entire life of observation. Public schools, despite their shortcomings, do not even have an “admissions office”. Not every student who attends an independent school “works out” or “fits” with the school “culture’. Independent schools can – perhaps not always – become homogenized gatherings for folks who share similar politics, levels of income and social beliefs.

    Public schools continue to provide a level playing field – open to all – that reflect the diversity of the community supporting the school. Yes, there are students who need a different educational setting. Lets find a way to provide that without defunding public education. If there was a way to have a blind lottery for admissions to “independent” schools so that the student body at each publicly funded independent school reflected the host community… maybe we could talk… However, this flies in the face of “legacy admissions” and the whole culture of private schools. Great discussion.