UPDATED: Education board sharpens scrutiny of school merger proposals

John O'Keefe
State Board of Education member John O’Keefe. Photo by Bob LoCicero

As key deadlines approach, school districts are pitching an assortment of last-ditch merger proposals to the Vermont State Board of Education.

Many of the plans were put together after the Legislature gave districts more leeway.

But as districts take advantage of the new flexibility under the latest version of the school consolidation law, Act 49, the Board of Education is becoming more rigid in its assessments of merger proposals.

Over the past two years, the board has approved nearly every school consolidation plan, but now the board is raising objections to proposals and rejecting some outright.

For example, last month the secretary of the Agency of Education recommended the board reject a proposal to add Marlboro to Windham Central Supervisory Union. The board ultimately voted in favor of it. However, they rejected a proposal by Rupert and Pawlet and almost turned down a plan put together by Tunbridge and Chelsea.

John O’Keefe, who was appointed to the board last spring by Gov. Phil Scott, said he was disappointed the board didn’t support the secretary’s recommendation to nix Marlboro’s pitch.

“All the recommendations I have seen so far have said to vote yes,” O’Keefe said. “We are filtering these down and it is getting tougher. I think it is brave of them [AOE] to recommend postponing action.”

Merger proposals are starting to pile up because Act 46 study groups have until Nov. 30 to bring plans to a vote in order to qualify for tax breaks and maintain a say in the merger process.

The state board will create a new map of school districts in 2019. At that point, districts that have not consolidated or that have not already been designated geographically isolated will be merged involuntarily.

The state board’s October meeting will be the last chance for many districts to take advantage of new merger options under Act 49, which amends the 2015 district consolidation law known as Act 46.

Krista Huling, chair of the board, said usual business will be put off in order to consider new proposals. “We did get more work added with Act 49,” she said.

Huling asked the board to question whether the merger proposals are in the best interest of the state.

Stacy Weinberger and other board members grumbled about Act 49’s impact on their efforts to implement the earlier law.

“I think Act 49 has shifted the course,” Weinberger said. “We knew Act 46 was taking us in a direction, and it was going to get harder. Now there is this turn.”

Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, a member of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers heard from a number of communities that were struggling to find partners and comply with Act 46.

“This won’t be your first challenge around these [Act 49 merger] models,” Long said. “This was our attempt to find some flexibility to allow districts to go forward and meet the education goals of Act 46 and continue the conversations in their communities about how they value education.”

Champlain Islands district change approved

The board heard Act 49 proposals from the Champlain Islands and southern Vermont.

The Champlain Islands group proposed that Alburgh be allowed to join three school districts that voted to merge last fall.

The so-called three by one program under Act 49 allows a recently created union school district made up of three school districts to add a fourth if it is geographically isolated or if has a different operating and tuitioning pattern from neighbors.

Some districts in Vermont operate their own schools; others tuition out students to other districts. In certain instances, districts operate elementary schools and tuition out students in the upper grades. The original consolidation law put restrictions on mergers between districts that operated schools and districts that tuitioned out students.

Grand Isle, Isle La Motte and North Hero are merging into one district and the proposal would add Alburgh as a stand-alone school district, allowing both to be governed by the Grand Isle Supervisory Union.

The new proposal will not change the current structure. However, the three towns that voted to unify will retroactively have access to tax breaks and state funds for the transition. Under the proposal, Alburgh will remain its own school district and maintain its own board. It will, however, not be moved to another district when the state board remaps districts statewide.

The four towns and South Hero were all members of the area’s original Act 46 study committee, but Alburgh chose not to take the merger to a vote. The district would have had to give up its middle school to fit in with the new school district, which operates schools for grades preK-6 and tuitions grades 7-12.

South Hero residents voted not to merge. The state board may ultimately add the town to the new school district.

Andy Julow, the chair from North Hero, said the southern part of the islands identified strongly with Chittenden County, but Alburgh felt closer to Canada, New York and northern Vermont. Ultimately, he said they couldn’t merge together because it was important for Alburgh to keep its middle school students close to home.

The board voted in favor, but John O’Keefe voted only as present.

Rebecca Holcombe
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Holcombe opposes Marlboro proposal

Act 49 also paved the way for two recently created unified union school districts to join with a town school district. This model is called a two by two by one and it creates a multi-district supervisory union.

However, when the two new unified union school districts of West River Valley and River Valley proposed adding the Marlboro School District to their supervisory union, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe stepped in to oppose the merger.

Marlboro voters rejected a proposal that would have merged the district with Dover and Wardsboro because they would have had to give up their middle school.

“There is a tremendous amount of action in this area playing out,” Holcombe said about school district mergers in the south.

In a couple months, communities that are not merging will submit plans to the state explaining why they should remain a single district.

“We will have to make decisions for the state as a whole. I feel like as we get closer to that moment we have to be very intentional about the precedents we set that may become binding down the road,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe suggested the board table the Marlboro proposal because it doesn’t do enough.

“I need people to understand, the factors that led to Act 46 are still there [Marlboro],” she said.

Marlboro has seen a 30 percent decline in enrollment over the last 20 years, she said. More Marlboro high school students attend Brattleboro in Windham Southeast, but they were proposing to join Windham Central with only a handful of students attending the sole high school: Leland and Gray.

Holcombe said small single town school districts are expensive, tax rates are volatile, and programming is limited.

And the education secretary said she couldn’t support small towns spending more to keep the status quo without creating better opportunities for students.

“I’m increasingly concerned about the fiscal situation in the state … are we taking seriously how to provide an adequate quality education in fiscally tight times?” Holcombe asked.

Marlboro fought back. Douglas Korb, chair of the school board, urged members to reject the secretary’s recommendation because it would stifle their community’s efforts to move forward.

“Our board and our community has worked steadfastly to meet the criteria of the law. Marlboro has fulfilled the specifics of the law with this proposal and the voters are deserving of a decision by you,” he said.

Marlboro’s Act 46 consultant, Steven Dale, told board members they can still change district boundaries later.

“It [a yes vote] does not preclude you, after the dust has settled, to say we want to realign supervisory unions,” Dale said. “But it would give them the certainty that for the next year or two years, they can move forward within the context of Windham Central.”

River Valley’s Act 46 Study Group Chair Rich Werner, who also chairs the Dover School Board, told board members he respected Holcombe, but he asked them to vote against her wishes.

“Marlboro didn’t just come onto the River Valley study group to pay lip service,” Werner said. “We worked hard. It was a tough decision to give up 7 and 8th grade program. This has not been an easy act for us to work with but we have worked harder than anyone else in the state … by you saying no or postponing this you are not just putting Marlboro in limbo but the other two districts, too.”

The board approved the merger proposal with the caveat they could redraw the supervisory union boundaries when they create the statewide plan. O’Keefe did not support the decision.

Now the proposal will go before Marlboro voters. The town will get to keep its preK-8 program and tuition out high school students, but the district will not get tax cuts, and it will have to apply for the small school grant annually.

Rep. Long, a member of the West River board and chair of the Windham Central school board, was present to support Marlboro.

Long said the board’s vote works for the town, the supervisory union and the region.

“Act 49 came along because of school districts just like Marlboro who really did take this seriously and tried to find a path forward under Act 46 and couldn’t,” she said.

Windham Southeast

The board also heard from towns asking for traditional Act 46 mergers. Those too were met with skepticism and mixed approval.

Four towns in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union have been meeting for more than two years to come up with an acceptable consolidation plan.

The first conflict was around Vernon. Lawmakers wrote a law that allows the town to participate union school district and still offer school choice. Members from Vernon bowed out of the talks with Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney to preserve their unique tuitioning option. Lawmakers wrote another special measure into Act 49 to allow Vernon to leave their union school district to pursue other merger options.

School district consolidation in the area has met with growing public opposition.

Alice Laughlin, chair of the Act 46 group, said, “There is an active group that does not want us to comply with Act 46. They are not glad we are here.”

However, she continued, “We have created a merger we actually feel really good about that deals with real issues on the ground in our area and we are enthusiastic about it.”

Windham Southeast’s four-town school district would have one school board made up of nine members. They expect about $100,000 in savings and then future savings based on increasing the student-to-teacher ratios and having more flexible staffing patterns. The area will get transition assistance, tax breaks and protection from the state plan.

Amy Wall, from Dummerston, said if voters approve their proposal they will be able to keep their community schools healthy and vibrant instead of watching them struggle and peter away. “There are some exciting opportunities that not everyone is able to see because of more, adult-type concerns. I think, as a group, if we can get past that, it would be a boon to our greater community.”

The board approved the proposal unanimously. It will go before voters on Nov. 7.

Chelsea and Tunbridge

The board also heard from Chelsea and Tunbridge, two towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union. The area has been fraught with angst over what seemed like a straightforward innovative Act 46 merger proposal that has been tangled up in revotes and indecision for months.

Chelsea and Tunbridge were part of an original plan to unify Bethel, Rochester and Royalton on one side, Granville and Hancock on another and their two school districts as a third. All the sides are necessary for the merger to go forward. On April 11, voters in all but Royalton approved the plan that would bring tax breaks and resources to their area. Since then, a series of revotes has unraveled parts of the union and put others back together.

Rochester pulled out of a union with Bethel and Royalton. Royalton had a revote and decided to jump back in and they will join with Bethel and run a preK-12 school district. Granville, Hancock, Bethel and Chelsea voted for the merger in April and have not held revotes.

Krista Huling
Krista Huling, right, is chair of the State Board of Education. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Tunbridge voters asked for a revote and rejected the previously approved merger with Chelsea by just four votes. Townspeople said they feared losing their elementary school. Tunbridge has a preK-8 school and pays tuition for high schoolers. Chelsea voters said they would close their high school to merge with Tunbridge.

If the towns don’t merge, officials say taxes will go up significantly over the next few years. By 2021, Chelsea voters are expected to pay $2.04 per $100 of assessed property value and Tunbridge voters $1.92. If their plan is approved by the board and voters they will be eligible for tax breaks and other assistance.

The proposal by the two towns was different from the last one — it didn’t combine middle schools, instead it promised to “explore” the idea of a joint middle school program. It also gives the town residents veto power over the closing of a school building for all time.

The state education agency argued the plan doesn’t take enough steps to address tax increases and doesn’t create a big enough system to give good, affordable educational opportunities to students.

Still, Holcombe recommended that the board accept the plan, which it did, but not without grilling the study committee representatives.

John Carroll, who joined the state board last spring, took issue with Tunbridge officials because they weren’t making any effort to change. “It feels like your community has refused to step up,” he said.

He called the proposal disappointing and added, “I’m uneasy about supporting this because it is our last bite at the apple and frankly, it is just a nibble.”

Board Chair Huling praised the original plan from February calling it exciting for kids. “Why water it down and take away the boldness?” she asked, adding, if only four votes sunk the better proposal, why not fight to change a few minds?

Holcombe asked why the rest of the state should hand over tax breaks to “subsidize a plan that doesn’t really change the game, doesn’t offer increased affordability and expansion of opportunities?”

White River Superintendent Bruce Labs urged patience with the two communities who he said were trying to re-establish trust. A small group of people went door to door and spread misinformation before the revote in Tunbridge. The changes the study group made were to reassure those voters and are necessary to change the outcome, according to Labs.

“This is our last shot. We are asking you for the opportunity to do a good job and get this off the ground,” Labs said.

In the meantime, Chelsea residents are waiting for some direction.

Emily Marshia, a Chelsea board member, said her town has nothing left to give. “We recognize that on paper this is weak, but I can assure you, members of the study committee plan to push this merged middle school in the first year.”

Dale, their Act 46 consultant, directed the board to look at the Act 46 proposals they have approved. “There are many places that have not had radical changes in education. It has simply been the coming together of governance to set the stage to deal with the future.”

Dale called the February proposal “revolutionary” because it closes high schools in Chelsea and Rochester. “Those are big deals,” Dale said. “They are extremely expensive schools to run for very little benefit. These folks dug really hard as opposed to a union high school district that didn’t change anything about the way they are doing things.”

He urged the board to approve the plan and set a foundation for these communities to build a middle school program. “You are approving a school district, not a school plan, the new board gets to decide that.”

Carroll still struggled with the loss of the original plan. “I personally am inclined to vote no,” he said. He felt the communities were disregarding what the state is trying to accomplish. “Chelsea made a courageous choice and tossed a bouquet to the folks in Tunbridge, but they said, no thanks, we don’t want your bouquet.”

If the plan isn’t approved, Tunbridge will be left isolated as a preK-8 school district with no nearby partners and Chelsea no longer has a high school, leaving it in limbo, Dale said.

“As much as it is distasteful, we are where we are,” Dale said. “They want to finish this job and they are in a much better position to solve this problem than you will be seven or eight months from now.”

Four board members voted in favor, two voted against the plan. Huling told the group to tell their communities they want to see serious change in exchange for tax breaks.

Rupert and Pawlet

The state board rejected a plan put forward by Rupert and Pawlet to merge into a single school district that would operate a preK-6 elementary school and send middle and high school students to either Granville or Salem, both in New York. The board said they were concerned students without means would have fewer opportunities than students from upper income families.

Currently, there is a law that lets Rupert and Pawlet designate schools outside Vermont. The New York schools they send students to have much lower tuition rates than schools in Vermont. This keeps the tax rate artificially low. A new unified district would no longer have this special arrangement.

The plan would merge the two town’s school boards into one with six members, but the proposal required the Legislature to create a law saying they could designate to the New York schools. If lawmakers refuse, then the merger would fail.

AOE and Holcombe praised the school board merger and recommended passage, but they warned the board of possible inequality at the high school level.

Because the new school district would designate the New York schools as their primary high schools, if students wish to attend another public school in Vermont or an independent school, they would receive $5,495 — the least amount of tuition for the designated schools. Only families who could afford to make up the difference in tuition would be able to pick a different school.

Members of Families for Education in Vermont, a group of approximately 250 parents in Rupert and Pawlet, wrote a letter to the state board saying they want the towns to merge but they do not want to keep the current tuition system. They presented evidence that the two New York schools were not providing as many course offerings, sports or clubs to students as nearby Vermont schools.

About 50 percent of the students in the two towns choose Vermont schools.

“That is a huge equity issue. Only kids that can afford to pay that other half have choice. I understand why the electorate would want to keep things artificially low, but how is that allowing students living in poverty any sort of choice?” Huling asked.

The board voted to send the study group back to rewrite their plan based on the two school districts coming together and said they would consider it again in October.

“What makes this uncomfortable is the designation,” Huling said. “We need to see that equity is addressed. Is it about coming together and meeting the goals of Act 46 for equity and opportunity for students? That is something we are really interested in hearing about.”

Southwest Vermont and Mount Anthony

The state board approved a plan to unite all the school districts in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union into one. The districts of Pownal, Shaftsbury, Woodford, Bennington and North Bennington — that all attend high school in the Mount Anthony school district — would join together. All of them operate schools except North Bennington, which pays tuition for students to attend a once public, now private elementary school.

If North Bennington doesn’t vote to join the union on Nov. 7, the remaining districts will form a modified unified union school district. This will allow the area to get tax incentives and reduce tax rates. They also expect to save about $100,000 from joint administrative costs.

If voters approve the new Mount Anthony Unified School District it will run six elementary schools and one middle and high school from one school board made up of 11 members.

If they end up with a modified union school district, then, board member William Mathis said, the state board will be left to deal with a doughnut hole when they develop their state plan.

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