ARLINGTON — Vermont House Education Committee chairman David Sharpe visited Arlington on Tuesday to host a public forum on Act 46, the 2015 education act.
"All of us are concerned about it, and we want to hear from you tonight," said Manchester representative Steve Berry on the act, which provides financial incentives, in the form of tax breaks, to school districts that merge into districts of at least 900 students. The act also provides several alternative methods for districts to come into compliance. School boards that do not submit alternative structure proposals to the secretary of education by the deadline of July 1, 2017, or have their proposals denied, could have the state step in and find them a partner, although numerous officials have stated that the state board of education will be forbidden from making any decisions that close schools or lower school choice.
"The goal of Act 46 is equality, equity, and sustainability," said Sharpe, "Our state constitution requires that we educate all the children in the state on an equitable basis. Even though the state has delegated that authority to towns for hundreds of years, the constitution still requires that it's the state's responsibility, and therefore, we as legislators cannot ignore the education of our children." He said that that, and repeated pleas from voters that education taxes were too high, were the primary factors that convinced legislators that a bill like Act 46 was needed.
He said that Vermont has some of the highest administrative costs in the country in education, and that the Act is attempting to, through consolidation, run business offices and administration more efficiently. He also pointed to what he described as the "bizarre" structure of school systems in Vermont, in which a principal might have some staff that are employees of his school district, while others are employees of the supervisory union, while he or she must answer to not only to his or her superintendent, but several school boards, as well as parents. Sharpe said that the lack of a clear system has driven many administrators to leave the state.
Sharpe said, as secretary of education Rebecca Holcombe has argued consistently, that student numbers have been decreasing across the state, while staff numbers have remained consistent. While he said the special education has represented a large part of this trend, and needs independent reform, he maintained that the schools still have a responsibility to reduce staff. "We have got to reduce the number of paid professionals in buildings," he said, although he noted that this could be done through not replacing retiring staff members, rather than layoffs.
Representative Cynthia Browning of Arlington, along with much of the audience, was highly critical of the bill throughout the night, although she described its goals as "laudable."
"Trying to achieve these goals through mandated consolidation that reduces the flexibility of communities in determining how to meet these challenges is misguided and ineffective," she wrote in a letter she passed out to audience members before the talk began, "Certainly any communities that see educational and financial benefits to consolidation should do it. But the requirements of the Act 46 process will diminish local control of education and disrupt the operation of successful systems."
One common theme in questions asked by the audience, who mostly hailed from Arlington, Sunderland, and Sandgate, was why the state was trying to disrupt education in the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, which they described as one of the best school systems in the state, by forcing Sandgate to find a new partner that has the same level of school choice, and forcing Arlington to consolidate with another district. Sharpe responded that he was not familiar with their specific situation, but that the Act allows for districts who think they are already efficient to submit alternative proposals to the secretary of education. Browning and other members of the audience were concerned that the state has reportedly set a very high bar for alternative structures to be approved, and pointed out that if their proposal is denied, the state could step in and find them a partner without their consent.
"Everything you say about the bizarre structure is true," said Browning, "But I'm not sure Act 46 is going to fix it."