By Jay Eshelman
The Vermont Agency of Education has released draft articles of agreement for districts forced to merge under Act 46, a document that outlines how the new consolidated entities would be governed, with key implications for communities worried about how their larger neighbors would share power.
But what if school districts, for good reason, vote against merging? There are several school districts in this fix — Holland, Windham, Franklin, Barnard, Montgomery, Groton, Wells River, Ryegate, Blue Mountain and Black River, to name a few.
Here’s the deal. When a school district with a public school chooses against a merger, one of its options is to close its school and reopen it as independent school. In doing so the school district is authorized through 16 V.S.A. § 821, § 822, § 823 and § 824 to allow each parent to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children, public or independent. The state’s share of the cost per student is limited to the annual ‘announced tuition’ for independent school students at $13,910 (elementary grades pre-K-6) and $15,618 (secondary grades seven through 12). Tuitions to “designated” independent schools and public schools are similarly calculated. Typically, these tuition vouchers are less expensive for taxpayers than the existing cost per student of the public schools being replaced because frivolous state mandated regulations and procedures are more easily limited and controlled. The reopened independent schools, for example, often find they can operate successfully with only the tuition voucher while saving taxpayer money and maintaining the autonomy of their community school.
But now the agency says school closures won’t block mergers. As reported in VTDigger, “In a memo compiled last week, Vermont Agency of Education officials argue that unless districts actually shutter their schools before the State Board of Education issues their plan under Act 46 – which could come as soon as next month – that scheme to forestall mergers won’t work.”
The Agency of Education and its State Board (SBOE) recognize that school districts that vote against mergers and close their schools are a threat to the education monopoly’s viability, and they are doing everything they can to stop school districts who have, through the Act 46 process, figured out that closing their public schools is their best option financially and academically.
However, school districts that are considering closing their schools are in a race against time. They must act before they are merged with other districts, because once these districts are forced to merge, they lose their autonomy and authority to govern their district. This is what all the hubbub is about.
The AOE and SBOE pretense that school districts choosing not to merge can’t vote to close their schools to create independent schools in their place, because of timing, is a continuation of SBOE deceptiveness and bad faith negotiation. After all, there is nothing in 16 V.S.A. § 821, § 822, § 823 and § 824, the statutes governing a school district’s authority in this regard, or in Act 46, that restrict an autonomous school district’s authority to close its schools based on arbitrarily determined “inchoate” or “ephemeral” timeliness.
As a result, anti-Act 46 groups are threatening to sue the SBOE and the AOE. A publication released in August by Vermonters for Schools and Community highlights the overreach by the Vermont Agency of Education and its State Board of Education.
Is the Vermont education monopoly inclined to heed the wishes of Vermont school boards, parents and communities? State Board Chair Krista Huling said the threat of going to court wasn’t going to sway them either way.
So, there you have it. Apparently, litigation is the only remedy available and these groups are tasked with the unenviable position of financing law suits against an organization they’re forced to fund with their tax dollars.
The Catch 22
What happens when a school district that voted to close and reopen its public school as an independent school is forced to merge after its change to independent governance? Typically, because the original district was a small district to begin with, when it’s forced to merge its board participation is limited to the proportion of its students in the newly consolidated district. If the board members in the other merged districts, who now control the new board majority, decide to reconsider the governance of the smaller district, they can override the vote of the original smaller district’s electorate.
The question we must ask is this: Given Vermont’s nearly highest-in-the-nation cost of education and the mediocre academic performance of its students, can voters reasonably expect Vermont’s same education establishment to (1) provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide, (2) lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards, (3) maximize operational efficiencies, (4) promote transparency and accountability, (5) deliver at a cost that parents, voters and taxpayers value by consolidating the governance and practices that created Vermont’s high education cost and mediocre academic performance in the first place?
Jay Eshelman is a former school board director and business owner living in Vermont.