Three legislators have told the State Board of Education it misinterpreted Act 46 and needs to build more flexibility into its proposed rules for an alternative pathway for school districts to merge under the law.
"I think the State Board of Education has misinterpreted the Legislature's intent," said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington. "I read the draft rules. I was there when we debated the legislation, and I have talked to people in my community. I think it is fair to say that the board has misinterpreted what the Legislature intended." Pollina did not vote for or support Act 46 when it was passed in 2015.
His co-authors on the Tuesday letter to education officials are Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, who chairs the Education Committee, and Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais.
In their letter to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and state board Chair Stephan Morse, the legislators took issue with the Education Agency's insistence in its guidance that the preferred merger model is best.
"The draft rule claims that the goals of Act 46 are always 'best met by a school district organized and operating as a preferred structure.' That is not what Act 46 says," they wrote.
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe speaks about Act 46 at a meeting of the State Board of Education in 2015. Board Chairman Stephan Morse is to her right. File photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger
The letter also says the rules lay out "rigid requirements" for school districts that want to pursue an alternative governance structure.
"Section 5b of Act 46 lists some factors that may lead towns to conclude that an alternative model is best, but ultimately leaves that choice to the towns. The draft rule, by contrast, mandates rigid requirements that must be met for an alternative model to be accepted. This goes far beyond the spirit and letter of Act 46," the legislators say.
Cummings said she helped write the letter because her constituents are having difficulty implementing the law. She also said she believes that when she helped craft Act 46, she had a more "liberal interpretation" than her colleagues in the House.
"When I said an alternative system, I was trying to avoid a 'one-size-fits-all,' 'Montpelier has decided' and allow the towns to do what moves them forward — what works for them," she said in an interview.
Act 46 is designed to encourage Vermont's 270-plus school districts to form larger units in response to a decline in the number of students. In the first year, 55 towns voted to unify school districts, and 15 rejected merger proposals. The next phase of mergers will be in areas that do not fit as neatly into the few options or merger models available for school districts to unify.
School districts in Washington Central Supervisory Union — Calais, Middlesex, Berlin, East Montpelier and Worcester — were planning to combine into a single entity with one board and one budget, but the districts' debt has become an issue.
East Montpelier has an $8 million school debt, Middlesex has a debt of more than $4 million, and Berlin Elementary School is hoping to pass a $3 million bond for repairs. The preferred model would mean that all assets and debts would be shared with a single tax rate.
East Montpelier and Middlesex are the two wealthier towns in the district, according to Act 46 committee member Carl Parton, who is from Berlin. He wrote in The Times Argus that unification "would result in robbing tax dollars from the poor towns to pay for the school improvements in the richer towns."
The legislators' letter says alternative models were allowed for in Act 46 to address these kinds of issues. "One size does not fit all, and there are districts — like Washington Central — where an alternative model may work better, with far greater community support, than the consolidated model. Instead of creating roadblocks, the draft rule should facilitate these types of creative solutions," the lawmakers wrote.
The proposed rules on alternative structures will come before the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules on Monday. Morse, the state board chair, said the point of the six-month process is to gather people's reactions so changes can be made.
"We got through the easy phase of Act 46. We are in a different phase now. We were trying to provide guidance to those districts still struggling with this, but if we need to make changes, I'm sure we will be willing to do that," Morse said.
Morse also said he recognizes that the issues coming up in Washington County could apply in other parts of the state. "There are unique things in different places, and it will be difficult to write rules to address all those issues, but that was the attempt we made in this draft," he said.
Pollina said he wants to extend the deadlines for communities because right now they are feeling like they are forced to make decisions before the state board decides for them.
"There is a cloud over (Act 46 study committees)," he said. "They are working hard to come up with an alternative, but the board and the secretary are not really open to alternatives. There is a growing frustration among citizens in the process."
Pollina said he intends to write legislation in the next session that will lengthen the timeline and flexibility under Act 46.
Morse said he doesn't think the timeline needs adjusting. "I don't think things will get easier if we extend the timeline. This is historic legislation. I think everyone knows that is going to be difficult, but the whole objective is to provide a better education system for all our students," he said.
Tiffany Danitz Pache is VTDigger's education reporter.