Fewer districts will be eligible for small school grants

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Some of Vermont's small school districts aren't planning to merge and have been waiting to see if the state will deem them "geographically isolated." If granted that status, the state will continue to provide the districts with small school grants.

As of July 1, there were approximately 40 districts that had not yet merged and that until now have received small school grants. Only seven of those schools will be considered geographically isolated based on the criteria adopted by the State Board of Education at its September meeting.

The Act 46 school district consolidation law requires the state board to come up with a way to determine eligibility for small school grants based on either geographic isolation or strong academic performance by July 2018.

This past session, lawmakers asked the state board to publish a list by the end of September of schools isolated enough to be eligible for a small school grant, even though the criterion for eligibility isn't due until the middle of next year.

Lawmakers felt the list was important for some school districts trying to make decisions about how to move forward, especially if they would no longer be grant eligible, according to Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, a member of the House Education Committee.

"We were being told the unknown of whether these school districts would continue their geographic isolation was hampering their conversations," Long said.

Lawmakers wanted to have the metrics done in August but the Agency of Education, which supports the state board, made clear they couldn't create the standards that quickly. "This [measure] was the answer to the Agency not having time or resources to put it together sooner and yet give some sense of stability for the next 18 months to school districts," Long said.

The state board struggled with the sequence of the Legislature's requests.

"We have been given an unusual charge by the Legislature to come up with a list before coming up with a metric," said State Board Chair Krista Huling.

The board decided that for now any school that is more than 15 minutes of drive from another school will be considered geographically isolated.

Among those that are currently receiving the small school grant and are not merging with another district, the driving time ranges from 63 minutes for Canaan students to barely five minutes travel time in places like Cavendish.

The board is calling this a "preliminary determination" and suggested it indicates what sort of districts are likely to be considered isolated when the new metric is put in place.

The following schools are considered isolated:

- Brighton Elementary School

- Canaan Schools

- Chelsea School (although voters have agreed to close the high school.)

- Craftsbury Schools

- Marlboro Elementary School

- Rochester School (if it remains PK-12 operating - their plan is in flux after various votes)

- Windham Elementary School

Until July 1, 2019, school districts will continue to qualify for the small school grant based on how many students go to the school (a grade size of 20 students or less), but after that date, any districts that have not merged into a unified union will have to apply every year.

"For districts that don't merge, then beginning in 2019 they will have a new set of criteria," said Donna Russo-Savage, who works on Act 46 mergers for the Agency of Education. The new criteria will require a school to show academic and fiscal excellence or be deemed geographically isolated, according to Act 46. In the past, geographic isolation had nothing to do with determining eligibility for the grants.

"There will not be one set of schools that are always eligible for the grants" in the future, Russo-Savage said.

Peter Peltz was the only state board member who voted against the 15-minute rule. Peltz is from Woodbury and said his school receives a small school grant. He was also a lawmaker on the education committee before joining the state board.

"The small school grant has been the whipping boy in terms of education spending for a long time," he said, adding that the total amount spent on the grants comes out to be less than .002 of overall education spending.

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