As Act 46 Enters A Challenging Second Phase, Some Question The Law's Timeline

Nov 7, 2016

As Vermont's school district consolidation law moves into its second phase, prompting tough discussions for schools coming up with complicated merger plans, some lawmakers are wondering if they should  slow down the process to give districts more time to work out their merger proposals.

In the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, talks got bogged down over the issue of school choice.

The Act 46 Study Committee chairman, Win Townsend, said he though some teachers and administrators were steering students away from attending the public high school in the district.

"To say that it's teachers and administrators steering these kids away from Windsor, that's really an inflammatory statement," committee member Stacey Wilbur said at a recent meeting.

Townsend, who admitted to making the statement, responded, "Well, I think it's probably pretty low on the level of inflammatory that's happened around these meetings since 24 months ago." 

It's been a pretty tough 24 months for some school districts in Vermont.

Act 46 proponents were surprised when there were so many successful mergers during the first phase of the law, which ended July 1.

Voters have adopted Act 46 plans for 55 districts, and about a quarter of the state's students are now in school districts that will merge as the administrative pieces fall into place over the next year.

But now districts like Windsor Southeast are trying to get more complicated merger plans together before the next deadline falls on July 1, 2017.

And some lawmakers think they should be given more time.

"I think what we could do is what most people would call hitting the pause button," says Washington County Progressive-Democrat Sen. Anthony Pollina. "Because don't forget a lot of these decisions are kind of irrevocable, or irreversible. You're going to change the way you structure your school, and it's going to be something that's going to affect your community for a long time."

Pollina was one of the legislators who wrote a letter last month to the State Board of Education and to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe.

The lawmakers say the state board is being too rigid in setting up the rules for school boards that are trying to draw up their new consolidated district plans.

Pollina says the education law wasn't supposed to be a one-size-fits-all mandate. As local boards grapple with some really tough issues, he wants to pull back on the looming deadlines.

"It does mean giving the Legislature more time to bring in members of the public," Pollina says. "Not for legislators to talk to ourselves, but to bring in members of the public to hear about the experiences that people have been having now since they've been going through this for almost a year at the local level. And let's not punish people who may be wisely going slower than the Education Board or the Legislature intended them to."

Vermont's school district consolidation law was passed to address the rising cost of education in a state that's seen a steep drop in the number of students.

Supporters also say it will lead to more equity among Vermont's schools.

"I think what we could do is what most people would call hitting the pause button. You're going to change the way you structure your school and it's going to be something that's going to affect your community for a long time." - Sen. Anthony Pollina

Donna Russo Savage is with the Agency of Education, and she's been crisscrossing the state, working directly with school boards that are trying to hammer out their merger proposals.

During the first phase, most of the successful mergers were done within existing supervisory unions, with schools that had histories of collaboration.

But now schools with less history — or even a messy history — are trying to work out agreements.

And Russo Savage understands that this is tough stuff to hash out.

"If they want to move forward with a merger, the voters might need to decide whether they're going to stop operating some grades or they're going to stop tuitioning some grades," says Russo Savage. "That kind of conversation is very, is very, difficult. But even something simpler than that is difficult when you haven't really been working together."

Still, Russo-Savage isn't convinced that more time is the remedy for some of the tortured Act 46 talks that have been taking place.

The same issues will be there in six months or a year, or two years, and Russo Savage says with so much energy already invested in school district consolidation, it makes sense to keep the process moving forward.

"I think that there might be a difference between allowing there to be some more flexibility with deadlines to be eligible for certain incentives, versus pushing out deadlines so far that it makes people wonder whether the state is really behind the law or not," she says. "And if the state really does think that this is the way to move, then I don't think that that kind of message is a good message to be giving."

So in a way, Act 46 has kind of reached a tipping point.

And with a new governor taking over in January who will have the authority to appoint a Secretary of Education, there are a lot of questions about the future of Vermont's school governance structure.

There will be three Act 46 votes on Election Day, and another dozen or so merger plans could go before voters on Town Meeting Day, or before the next deadline of July 1 2017.

Springfield Area Public Access television and Windsor Area Community Television both contributed to the reporting for this story.

Updated 6:00 a.m. 11/8/16 This story was updated to include information on public access television reporting that was included in this story.