Education

Rutland, Ira school districts find a home under merger law revision

John Carroll
State Board of Education member John Carroll listens at the Aug. 30 meeting. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

The State Board of Education recently approved the first school district merger under a revision to Act 46 that lets standalone districts join newly consolidated ones.

The plan the board OK’d at its Aug. 30 meeting lets Rutland Town and Ira continue to operate as they have been but within a new supervisory union structure.

The new Quarry Valley district has 988 students, and Wells Springs has 273. Adding the 511 from Rutland Town and 45 from Ira would give the new supervisory union 1,817 students.

“We feel there will be efficiencies that result in cost savings and more opportunities for students,” said Debra Taylor, the superintendent for Rutland Central. The plan is to reduce the number of people in the central office and garner some immediate savings.

Taylor said there is regional support for the two districts to join with them. “Our boards took action and had unanimous motions to include Ira and Rutland Town …,” she said. Both the Rutland Town and Ira school boards also support the proposal.

Rutland Town had been part of Rutland Central Supervisory Union, and Ira had been part of Rutland Southwest but tuitions its students in all grades.

In January, the board approved a “side-by-side” merger involving other districts in those supervisory unions. At that time, the study group wanted to include Rutland Town and Ira in the new entity as alternative districts. The State Board of Education did not approve the alternative structures but gave the green light for the side-by-side merger.

Since then, the Legislature passed Act 49, which tweaks the school district consolidation law and allows standalone districts to hook up with newly formed ones.

After getting voter approval to form two new school districts merged into one supervisory union, the Act 46 teams went to the state board for the next step: to allow Rutland Town to connect the Wells Springs Unified School District with Middletown Springs and Wells, and to have Ira connect to the Quarry Valley Unified School District with Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland.

Rutland Town operates a pre-kindergarten-through-eight school and pays tuition for high school students. Because Rutland Town and Ira operate differently from all the school districts surrounding them, they do not have nearby merger options.

Ira’s cost per student is lower than any other non-operating school district in a 50 mile area.

Both school districts performed self-evaluations and argued they are meeting the goals of Act 46 within their current structures.

Judy Pullinen, the superintendent for Rutland Southwest, said Rutland Town has a tradition of tuitioning students to 15 high schools and has developed strong connections to other schools in its current supervisory union. She said the proposal shows Rutland Town meets or exceeds the expectations of Act 46.

By the end of November, communities must vote for proposed mergers or they will be putting the fate of their school districts in the hands of the state. Some communities have been trying to figure out how to use the alternative structure language in Act 46, especially since districts that operate schools can’t merge with those that pay tuition for students in the same grades.

Act 49, which passed in May, gives districts more merger options and extends the deadlines for merger votes. One of the changes allows districts that are already merging to let a third school district tag along, something lawmakers called a 2-by-2-by-1. The lone school district does not get to share in the tax incentives but is allowed to continue operating as it has been and is protected when the state redraws the map of school districts in 2019.

Donna Russo-Savage, principal assistant to the state education secretary, explained the new law this way: “When a side-by-side has happened, another [school district] can come to the merged ones and say we should be in the same supervisory union.” In this instance, Rutland Town and Ira don’t believe they should be merged under the statewide plan and believe they should be part of the same supervisory union, she added.

The secretary of education recommended the state board accept this proposal, and members did with a voice vote. The merger will become effective July 1.

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