ACT 46: Schools' future up to voters

BENNINGTON — On Nov. 7 voters of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford will be asked to decide whether or not to adopt a proposal that would bring their schools into compliance with Act 46 by merging the districts into a single pre-K through 12 district with one board and one budget.

The process that lead to this point has lasted over two years and has involved three study committees, dozens of public meetings, and countless proposals for how to best meet the requirements of the law.

Opponents see loss of local control as a major reason to oppose the plan. "They keep referring to this as being like MAU. This is nothing like MAU," said Nelson Brownell of Pownal, who chairs the SVSU board and represents his community on the MAU board. "They are doing away with MAU and creating a new super-board... By having this super-board, all the power is taken away, the local control of the small districts. To say it's like the MAU is more of a sound-bite than a factual thing. It goes back to the loss of local control, and what people have considered local control for years."

"What might work for Burlington and Rutland, I don't see that functioning well (here), especially with our population dropping," Brownell said.

For proponents like Bennington School Board Chairman Chris Murphy, the proposed merger represents an opportunity. "The present school governance structure creates a sense of 'us and them,'" he said. "'We're Bennington and they're Shaftsbury, we're Pownal and they're Woodford.' But at seventh grade, we can see that there is no 'us and them,' it's just 'us.' It's all of our kids. In a very real sense, this merger fulfills the promise begun by the supervisory union, in that it creates a union, a unity, and it dissolves this illusion of 'us and them.'"

What is Act 46?

Act 46 began in the House Education Committee as H.361 and was signed by Governor Peter Shumlin on June 2, 2015.

Its goals: To move the state towards more sustainable models of education governance while providing equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities, maximizing operational efficiencies, and promoting transparency, and that all of those services are, "delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value."

"This is the law at this point, no matter what people say," said State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington. "Personally, I don't see that changing at all. There were a couple of bills floated over the last couple of years as it relates to Act 46, trying to withdraw it, but that never happened. The governor and the majority in both houses support Act 46 going forward."

State Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, who represents Shaftsbury and part of Sunderland and served on the House Education Committee as the bill was being drafted, said that her committee's goals had been to reduce property taxes and provide additional opportunities for students, especially in very small schools.

"I worked on this bill for four years," Miller said. "Next to getting $3-4 thousand to close the landfill, I think this is the greatest gift I could give my town.

"The state did not want to come in and say, 'This is how you're going to do it.' Instead, it created study committees for every town in the state of Vermont to figure out how to make this work for themselves," she said.

Miller said she feared that if student population continues to decline, smaller schools, which she described as the centers of their communities, might be forced to close, while if those small districts merged with larger districts, students might be able to be shifted around to keep all the schools operating. "This is so serious for us, as a town, as a region, and as a state," she said. "(Vermont has) lost 26,000 kids, 20 percent of our students, since 1997. That's a lot of kids. But we haven't lost any staff or faculty. So what's happening? Our property taxes are going out of sight. The purpose of this bill is to reduce property taxes so people can afford to live here."

"I don't want to close the community schools. I love the community schools, that would be such a shame," she said.

How did we get to this point?

The first SVSU study committee began meeting in the fall of 2015, and it was clear from the beginning that each district had a drastically different outlook on what would be an acceptable solution. For over a year the committee discussed every possibility for coming into compliance with the law, from a combined Bennington-MAU district, which the other towns could tuition into, to remaining exactly as they are now.

Because of North Bennington's unique status, in which it does not operate a school and offers its residents school choice for grades pre-K through six and is a part of the MAU district for the higher grades, there were essentially three options for the SVSU to merge under Act 46, according to a presentation given by Brad James and Donna Russo-Savage from the Agency of Education in September 2016.

First, the districts could form a Regional Education District (RED), but that would have required North Bennington to vote to give up school choice. Second, the districts could form a Modified Unified Union School District (MUUSD), which would still be governed by a single board and would share a single tax rate and budget, but North Bennington would be allowed to keep its elementary board and its school choice. Finally, they could have formed a Layered District, which would have merged all the elementary school districts except North Bennington, and the MAU would continue to operate as it does today. The possibility of the districts remaining as they are now was not discussed seriously as an option after a meeting in Brattleboro in April 2016, when representatives from the Agency told SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen and others that it was highly unlikely that the State Board of Education would accept such a proposal.

After the first study committee dissolved in August 2016, the SVSU board created a new, informal committee to explore the districts' options. When that committee dissolved in February of this year, members recommended the SVSU board create a formal study committee to draft articles of agreement for a Modified Union district. Its representatives would be elected in the same manner that MAU representatives are elected, with each town putting forward candidates, who are then voted on by the whole.

"The MAU model has worked well for our communities for many years," said Donald Campbell, chairman of the final study committee.. "It is very difficult to get a bunch of people into the same room and have them do good governance without factions being created, but the MAU structure, which was established in the 60's and codified in the 70's, is a form of governance that has really served our multiple communities well. So, the gist of this proposal is us saying to the state, we know it may not be directly proportional, but we have found the MAU model represents our large and small communities together in a very functional way, and we would like this model to continue, as opposed to something that would be more directly proportioned."

In the end, the formal study committee, with help from consultant Dan French, put together a proposal that would create an MUUSD in which the districts of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, Woodford, and Mount Anthony Union would merge into a single district. The North Bennington Graded School District would continue to exist outside of that structure and be governed by the North Bennington Prudential Committee, and the SVSU would continue to exist to provide services, such as special education, to both districts. This is the proposal voters will consider on Nov. 7.

The proposal includes some protections for small schools, according to Campbell.

"The state default is to say that no school can be closed for four years," he said. "We've increased that to five years, and then we've also built in that for this unified district board to close a school, there would have to be a super-majority vote, a 75 percent vote, and that vote would have to be taken over two years so it couldn't happen all at once. A vote would happen, then a year would have to happen before the second vote could happen. The idea there is that it's a much higher bar to close small schools, and the process is slowed a little bit so that cool heads can prevail, if that's what's necessary."

What happens next?

On Nov. 7, at least three out of the four school districts must vote affirmatively in order for the merged district to be created. At the same time they are voting the district's creation up or down, voters will also decide on the representatives for the new board. If the proposal passes, the new district will come into operation on July 1, 2019. The full merger report and articles of agreement are available on the SVSU's website.

"I don't see any immediate impact on what students would see go on in their schools," said SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen. "This is really more about governance — how the schools are run and boards oversee them. But, what I hope comes out of this is the opportunity to improve the delivery of services and flexibility in how we serve students."

If the proposal does not pass, each district's board would need to report to the State Board of Education in December on ways they are already meeting Act 46 goals. The State Board in 2019, based on recommendations from Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, will issue a statewide education governance plan in which they have the power to merge districts involuntarily. Russo-Savage said last year that the most likely outcomes for the SVSU, should it reach that point, would be that they are merged into a MUUSD or a Layered District.

"We're in a situation now where locally, we can all decide what to do with our education system," Campion said. "If we cannot come to an agreement then indeed the state, the Agency of Education, will step in and decide that for us. On a personal level, I wouldn't want to see that happen, so I hope that we could come to some sort of resolution on what would be best for all our students."

"A governance merger is happening," Campbell said. "The state has made it clear that some type of governance merger is happening. We know that they've already accepted a body of evidence that would suggest a school district of 2,000 to 4,000 (students) as being an optimal size. But we would like to try to work our local preferences into that merger."

If the state board merges the district, it is not clear how much of a say local communities will get in the process. French, the consultant, has said there is a possibility of a 90-day comment period following the issuing of the statewide plan, but that is not codified into the law.

While Campbell and many other board members believe the proposal represents the best opportunity for the communities of the SVSU to choose their own destinies, the feeling is not shared by all members.

Jackie Prue said that she does not support the merger proposal, citing the burden on Bennington to pay for a majority of the new district's costs and a lack of opportunities for community involvement with only a single board. "Any transparency we have now will be lost," she said. "The new board will have much more work to do, and will have to be willing to attend multiple meetings and committee meetings a month... I also believe a lot of the districts' uniqueness is going to go away." She said that in her two years chairing study committees, she didn't get the impression that any district wanted to participate in this. After-school programs, which are different in every community, are something that could be negatively affected by a merger, she said.

"I'm definitely not going to vote for it," said Fran Kinney, who represents Shaftsbury on its school board as well as on the Mount Anthony Union Board. "I would rather have the state come down and do their thing. We keep hearing the threats that the state is going to come down, I want them to. The state's never followed through on anything to begin with. I think if they come down and see what we have, we're doing 85 percent of the consolidation pieces as it is right now anyway, so I can't imagine that they're going to change too much. I want the state to be accountable and I want them to be responsible... Let's see what they're going to do, because I don't think they're going to do a heck of a lot."

"If the people of Shaftsbury don't get out and vote, and they end up losing their school, they get what they deserve," Kinney said.

This vote will be the last opportunity for the SVSU districts to take advantage of state tax incentives for merged districts. If the vote does pass, districts that are involved will get an eight cent tax credit in the first year of operation, which will decrease to six cents in year two, then four cents, then two cents.

"For Bennington alone to see the same impact as we would (in the first year of) these incentives, we would have to cut our budget by $1.4 million," Campbell said. "That would be a big cut. Granted, that is the biggest cut and it's only the first year. But the point is that these incentives are a large amount of money."

If one district votes against the proposal while the other three vote in favor, that district will find itself in a similar position to North Bennington: It will continue to operate its own elementary district with its own board, but will also have representation on the merged board. Those members would be there to vote on issues pertaining to the town's middle and high school students, and would recuse themselves from any votes that only pertained to elementary school students.

A community forum was held Thursday night in which members of the study committee and legislators spent over two hours taking questions. The video from that forum is available on Catamount Access Television's YouTube channel.

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB


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