On a recent episode of “Vote for Vermont,” host Pat McDonald had two education experts talk about Act 46 and the impact that district consolidation and potential school closures are going to have on small communities.
The guests were David Kelley, a former school board chair, lawyer and longtime Act 46 critic; he was joined by Brad Ferland, who served on the St. Albans School Board and has a background in communications and marketing.
During the interview, Kelley first recited how Act 46 came to be, noting that when the law passed in 2015 there was a sense of urgency — the student population in two decades had fallen from over 103,000 students to about 76,000 today, yet staffing had remained at high levels and costs were rising. For some districts, something needed to be done.
“I think is has probably served a number of communities well,” Kelley said. “But it was essentially a one-size-fits-all.”
As it was implemented, some of the more urban communities, such as in Chittenden County, saw mergers accomplished relatively painlessly. But Act 46 was not as appropriate for many rural communities. Out in the country, there’s a variety of governance structures, geographical barriers, and different financial situations that often made mergers tricky at best, and strongly opposed at worst.
Kelley explained that when the votes of the boards and the electorate of these communities are forcibly squeezed together, what can happen is larger communities could start to vote to close schools and there might not be much the smaller communities can do about it.
For example, Hardwick, with a population of around 3,000, has more voters than Woodbury, Greensboro, and Stannard combined. These four communities are being asked to merge for Act 46. Kelley said if there’s ever a vote to close the small elementary schools in Woodbury and/or Greensboro, Hardwick voters are going to have the upper hand.
Former Gov. Peter Shumlin told the press in multiple interviews that Act 46 was not about closing schools, and that there were “off-ramps,” such as Section 9 of Act 46, which assured the possibility for alternative governance structures to avoid undesirable mergers.
Only the State Board of Education rejected the clear majority of the alternative governance proposals. Kelley is now part of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members, which has organized over 20 schools for an appeal.
Ferland commented on what these small schools mean to their respective small communities.
“For the small rural communities, the hub of those communities are their schools,” he said. “And the magnet for people moving in first and foremost is the school.”
Making matters worse, the towns aren’t going to be able to take over the buildings in the event of a closing.
“I thought, well this isn’t so bad if they close the small schools,” McDonald said. “They can use that land and have the town decide to maybe build a restaurant and put it back on the tax rolls. That would not be the case, would it?”
Kelley replied: “What will be the case is the town will not control that piece of real estate.”
Kelley commented on the special education and poverty aspect, noting that families with these special needs often need these small schools the most.
“When you have a challenging demographic, a demographic where there’s a lot of substance abuse, where there’s a lot of poverty or dysfunctional families, small schools, all of the research shows that they do better. Part of what’s necessary is to provide the kind of personal attention that a student coming from that kind of trauma really needs.”
He said when a student in these categories lands in a huge school it can be overwhelming and their needs tend to get lost in the mix.
Ferland discussed how Franklin Central School in Vermont has been a particular model for success, considering they are in the top 25 in scores in the state and yet they are in the lowest 25 in spending. Despite the school’s high performance, they did not get a pass from Act 46.
“We are the model, and yet they want to merge us,” he said. “So there’s a disconnect between the State Board of Education and what’s really happening.”
Kelley suggested Act 46 was written in such a way that it leads to school closures, but it does so without pinning the blame on lawmakers.
“If you read Act 46, the very first page says ‘it’s not our intention to close small schools,'” he said. “If you read between the lines, I think what it says is ‘we as the legislature don’t have the courage to do something like that, so what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna pass the buck and we’re gonna create these regional boards and we’ll let you guys decide who gets knifed.'”