Act 46 study groups dot a map of Vermont like farmland. Since the school governance law passed in 2015, almost every supervisory union and supervisory district has engaged in either a casual or more formal study committee to consider options for merging.
But some parts of the state have little interest in joining up with neighbors, creating glaring white patches on the Vermont School Boards Association's map that depicts the current state of study.
Other towns have started the process and then decided to drop out, although at some point that becomes impossible, according to the state's education secretary.
Once districts join a formal study group, they are considered to have generally agreed to unify. Then it's up to voters to have the final say. "This is something school boards need to be aware of," said Nicole Mace, executive director of the school boards association. "Voting to join this kind of committee is a serious commitment to exploring what this partnership could look like."
One of the blank spots on the study map belongs to North Country Supervisory Union, which encompasses Newport and several nearby towns. Superintendent John Castle said he and his board are more interested in devoting their time to improving learning than in wooing dance partners. "I am confident that our ability to advance learning opportunities and outcomes for students is not compromised by our current governance structure," he said.
Castle said some communities in the supervisory union held forums, but the feedback from the local school boards was that they were not interested in being part of an accelerated merger, which garners the biggest tax incentives but comes with a timeline requiring some urgency.
He said there have been some good conversations about consolidation at multiple levels, including with the board, but they just don't believe that shifting to a centralized form of governance will bring any cost savings or better opportunities for students.
"At some point we will have to engage in some level of study to present to the State Board of Education our final findings, but we have until November 2017," said Castle, who added that it is likely they will propose an alternative model.
Stowe is another holdout. It has reportedly been considering an alternative structure as well. In addition, a local initiative is underway to look into converting Stowe's schools to independent status. Either way, the district will have to make a case to the State Board of Education for its approval.
School boards can engage in two types of study committees: an exploratory committee and a formal study committee known as a 706b. It appears that more than two dozen communities are engaged in at least one exploratory committee and at least two dozen others have completed an exploratory study, according to the VSBA map, which was last updated May 10. As for formal study groups, 35 supervisory unions have formed 29 of them, according to the Agency of Education.
Exploratory committees are made up of school board members from communities that want to be part of the study. They can apply for up to $5,000 to help defray costs associated with deciding if a partnership makes sense.
"They may hire a consultant to lead community discussions or to analyze financial or student performance data. Anything related to the questions members of the exploratory committee want answered as part of the process," she said of the expense reimbursements.
Districts can be involved in more than one of these initial study groups while they are trying on different partners to find the right fit.
During this phase school boards can opt out as various issues are sorted through. Norwich had been part of an exploratory study committee with Thetford, Strafford and Sharon, but board members realized they had to pull out when issues around their joint school district with Hanover, New Hampshire, became too thorny.
"It became apparent that our status as an interstate school district and the unique makeup of our potential partners made consolidation difficult and ultimately unappealing to our board and, we felt, our community," said Justin Campfield, a Norwich school board member.
When an exploratory committee concludes its work and wants to go forward, it writes an agreement between the member districts proposing a new unified district.
Formal study committees are formed when a group knows it wants to merge and needs to develop articles of agreement that will bring definition to the new unified school district and the composition of the new school board. These groups hire lawyers and have other costs, and by law they are allowed to apply for up to $20,000 in reimbursement. The grantmaking and the process have been in place since the union school movement in the 1960s, according to Mace.
Once the articles are drawn up and the formal report is done, the study committee submits it to the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education for approval. If they give the green light, the proposal is taken to the voters, who ultimately decide whether to form a new district.
The inability of one school board to put on the brakes once a formal study is undertaken became an issue in Vernon. The four Vernon School Board members came out of a closed-door session held to discuss with a lawyer the articles of agreement in their merger study with Windham Southeast Supervisory Union and immediately voted to withdraw from the study committee, according to the minutes.
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe weighed in and said the school board doesn't have the authority to break up a study committee. The study group can still go forward and make Vernon an "advisable" district. That means that if voters in Vernon agree with their school board members, they will not have to become a member of the newly formed school district.
Holcombe wrote: "Even if Vernon's appointees choose not to continue to participate, all voluntary mergers within the Act 46 framework are governed by processes established in statute nearly 50 years ago and that remain unchanged by Act 46. Nothing in existing law authorizes or contemplates withdrawal of an individual district once it has become a formal member of a study committee and the district's representative members have been appointed. In fact, if a school board had this authority, then even if a district joined a study committee upon petition of 5 percent of the voters (because the school board initially voted against participation), nothing would prevent the school board from subsequently subverting the voters' petition by later voting to withdraw the district from the study committee."
The point is that it is the voters of each community who get to decide whether to go forward, according to Mace. "Study committees can't take over towns. Voters have the ultimate authority," she said.
The impact of Act 46 will continue to be felt as communities across the state wrestle with small and big questions. "Through this process, different communities have focused on different goals," Holcombe said of the unified districts that have finished this process. "Some were driven by equity concerns or by a desire to keep small schools at the center of their communities. Others were driven by a desire to share resources, while others had a goal to stabilize rapidly increasing tax rates that threatened to make their communities unaffordable."