MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Agency of Education has recommended 18 consolidations for school districts that haven’t yet merged in accordance with Act 46. But of 43 districts or groups of districts that filed “Section 9” proposals for alternative governance structures, 22 shouldn’t have to merge, according to a report released Friday.
When Act 46 became law in 2015, school districts across the state were asked to develop merger plans with other districts in hopes of achieving savings through bureaucratic efficiencies. Most schools were able to comply, but about 74 districts — comprising 32 percent of the state’s students — couldn’t agree on consolidations and applied to adopt alternative governance structures. Districts being awarded alternative status would be free of important Act 46 requirements, such as having a minimum of 900 students.
In some cases where districts have failed to merge, the local school boards may have decided the effort was impossible due to logistical or legal challenges. In other cases, communities voted against merger proposals. According to acting Education Secretary Heather Bouchey, 12 mergers were not practical and 10 were not legally possible. Three others got no recommendation and will be allowed a more flexible process going forward.
Districts that didn’t merge filled out comprehensive plans to justify why their alternative governance proposals offer the best options for taxpayers and students alike.
In the months leading up to the release of the Proposed Statewide Plan for School District Governance on Friday, these administrations have been meeting with Agency of Education leadership to discuss the best strategies.
The agency report offers recommendations only; final determinations on mergers will be decided by the State Board of Education by Nov. 30, following three regional summer meetings, at which districts and towns can provide their input.
The complicated process of statewide consolidation has been made even more complex by the recent resignation of former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, who managed the implementation of Act 46 after it became law.
Some supervisory unions, such as the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, were let off the hook by Friday’s announcement. Five of its member districts were determined by the AOE to be “not practical” for mergers, and another was not legally possible.
At executive board meetings, OSSU Superintendent Joanne LeBlanc noted how a mix of public schools, independent schools, stand-alone elementary schools and stand-alone high schools was too complex to combine together as one.
A district that has has been fighting against consolidation has been the Cabot school system. In the summer of 2017, the community voted strongly against a proposal to merge with Twinfield and Danville, which would have required the closure of Cabot High School. Cabot is one of the 18 districts that will now face off against the state in a dispute over consolidation.
Other districts which are being asked to reconsider mergers include much of the northern border districts such as Swanton, Highgate, Franklin and over a dozen more reaching over to Newport, Derby and Holland. There is also a cluster around the capital, including East Montpelier, Berlin, Middlesex, Worcester and nine more.
In addition to the pressure of a potential forced merger by the AOE, districts had financial incentives to merge in the form of property tax breaks. Those savings were 10 cents off the tax rate for a successful merger by fiscal year 2017, then 8 cents, and continuing to drop 2 cents each year until all incentives are gone by fiscal year 2022.
David Kelley, attorney and former Hazen Union school board member, has written numerous commentaries arguing that Act 46 pressures rural communities to close schools in what amounts to closing towns’ cultural and economic hubs.
“As elementary schools close in small, rural communities there is less reason for young couples with children to move to those towns. Property values decline, tax bases erode and bit by bit the heartbeat of small towns flatlines,” he wrote in a commentary last month.
Benefits of consolidation remain highly questionable. In Maine, which also passed a statewide consolidation mandate, 30 schools that went ahead with a merger considered abandoning the process, and and nine underwent a process of reverting back to their former status, according to the Portland Press Herald.