Cabot merger failure could foreshadow more Act 46 failures

Photo by Cabot School

SMALL SCHOOL CHARM: Schools like the Cabot School sometimes have high costs, but parents and children often prefer them.

CABOT, Vt. — Another school merger vote was denied by Vermonters last week, leaving another local community with looming deadlines to conform to Act 46, the state’s 2015 school district consolidation law.

The uncertainty of Cabot School, a K-12 system in the Washington Northeast Supervisory Union, is becoming an increasingly familiar story around the state.

Last week Cabot failed to merge with Danville and Twinfield by a 357-163 vote. The high school would have closed had the towns agreed to consolidate.

According to WNESU Director of Special Services Mark Tucker, local residents have few remaining options.

One is they can go back to the drawing board with Danville and Twinfield. However, Danville voted 239-112 against a merger, while residents of Plainfield and Marshfield, who send their kids to Twinfield for school, voted 160-103 in favor of merging.

Another choice is to close the high school and offer school choice while maintaining grades K-8. They could then attempt to merge with Waterford, Walden and Barnett schools as part of their newly formed Caledonia Collective Union. All towns involved would have to approve the plan, of course.

“You don’t get to decide, you get to propose,” Tucker explained.

Yet another option is to form a private high school academy and maintain K-8. The board and voters can initiate the closing, and another entity would need to form the private school.

All those options would result in a “preferred merger,” according to Act 46.

There is one more possible option, but it’s one the architects of Act 46 would rather have schools avoid if possible.

They may apply with the Agency of Education to become what’s called an “alternative district,” which is the “do nothing option,” keeping governance and structure as-is and only changing their host supervisory union. In this scenario, they would join with the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union just to the north, which is already seeking alternative status.

The risk with this option is, if AOE doesn’t think the situation optimizes taxpayer savings and education quality, the state can reject the plan and force a merger against the best wishes of the community.

The deadline to present a plan to the state for either a preferred or alternative structure is mid-October.

Cabot School Board Chair Jackie Folsom said at a Monday evening meeting that the “do nothing” option is becoming increasingly common around the state.

“If you look at places that have already done what the state has asked them to do, it’s like this big glob right down the middle where all the big schools are, and everybody else like us is out here and we’re all having these conversations, and nobody is happy,” she said.

Folsom said if enough schools choose this way out, state education officials could become overwhelmed and unable to sort it all out.

“It’s just going to be this big flurry of alternative governance structure requests and they’re not going to be able to deal with it,” she said. “Quite honestly, that’s what’s going to happen; I just see this being pushed out further and further.”

Tucker asked how schools that have already merged might feel if other schools were given a free pass.

“I think the challenge for the Legislature is if you make substantial changes now on the basic guidelines and rules of Act 46, what does that say to the communities that have already gone through the process?”

Currently 60 percent of school children are, or soon will be, attending schools that adhere to the governance criteria set by Act 46. That includes 105 towns, 113 districts and 23 new unified districts.

Tucker said there seems to be a pattern that urban areas and larger schools have merged more easily than smaller rural schools.

“Well, rural communities have some problems which the big towns don’t have,” he said. “Geographic problems, transportation problems.”

WNESU Superintendent Nancy Thomas mentioned a difference in governance structures.

“Our proposal of Danville, Twinfield and Cabot did meet the governance structure so that one was possible and viable,” she said. “But if you look at Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, they have K-8s and K-12s and union schools, so that’s one of the challenges, the diversity of the kinds of governance structures.”

Folsom spoke at the Monday evening meeting about what initial steps are next for Cabot, which includes a public survey followed by a public forum.

“We really don’t know (what) are we dealing with,” she said. “Does the community want us to keep the high school? How should that look if that is the case? Should we go pre-K-8? Choice?”

Scott Thompson, who is the Calais representative to the U-32 school board over in East Montpelier, was in the audience of Cabot’s Monday meeting taking notes on how he will advise his own board. He agreed that the state has a predicament coming.

“I fully expect there to be a flood coming to the decision makers and I hope they are prepared for it,” he said.

Lisa Olson, another school board member, offered some thoughts on the value of small schools like Cabot.

“Why should Cabot be the school that has to close when academically we are doing better than the other schools?” she said. “I’ve had three daughters graduate from here and one of them is going to Smith University, and one of her best friends is going to Yale. Another is going to Brown.”

Folsom said it’s about time to get things in gear.

“We are under the gun,” she said. “It’s June, which makes it even worse to try and get anybody together, and it’s so important for the community to figure out that they’ve got to be a part of this.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorth82X.