The Act 46 school district consolidation law has jump-started difficult conversations across the state about how Vermonters should govern their schools. As the law moves into its second phase, the talks will likely get more complicated as school boards scramble to comply.
Over the past two decades, Vermont has lost about 20 percent of its public school students.
Act 46 was adopted to confront this stark reality.
The law requires school boards to merge with nearby districts, and then adopt a single, unified board to oversee a larger group of schools.
Washington West Act 46 committee Chairman Gabe Gilman says the law encouraged his district to consider the concept of local control through a wider lens.
"We have very, very small schools, and in some ways they were not having conversations they probably should have had a long time ago," Gilman says. "But the net effect was to make people have those conversation and force them to think about, how can we just get out of our old ways of doing things and look at what we have to share with others and what others have to share with us."
Washington West consolidated during the first phase of Act 46.
Washington West was one of the four districts that held votes just as Act 46's first phase was coming to a close.
Two of those votes passed, and two were rejected by voters.
During the law's so-called accelerated phase, districts were given the most generous tax breaks if they were able to hold successful votes before July 1.
And a lot of districts were able get their merger plans approved by the voters. As the first year ends, about 25 percent of the state's students are now in districts that are merging.
Explore the status of school district consolidation efforts around the state:
But in some districts the talks haven't gone quite so well.
Windham Southeast Chairwoman Alice Laughlin says the first phase was a challenge after the Vernon school board decided to stop pursuing an Act 46 merger because the town wanted to keep its school choice.
Vernon's move triggered a letter from Vermont's secretary of education, Rebecca Holcombe, who said the town had no legal authority to withdraw.
Now Vernon's representative to the merger committee sits in the audience during meetings instead of at the table.
And after the turmoil, the school district scheduled a public vote on whether to leave the union high school district.
Vernon school board member Walter Breau says the town's trying to sort it all out.
"One of the things the Vernon board is doing now is coming up with a risk and benefits of voting to leave the district," says Breau. "I think right now we have the one benefit, or what most folks in Vernon see as a benefit, is continuing school choice. I mean, we have no idea what the ramifications on the taxpayers of Vernon will be."
So whether mergers go through or not, Act 46 is changing Vermont's education system. And as the law moves into the next phase there will be even more change.
During the second phase, districts are allowed to reach outside of their supervisory unions.
Donna Russo-Savage is with the Agency of Education, and she's been working with districts around the state on their consolidation plans.
She says during the second phase of Act 46, newly-merged districts don't have to be contiguous and there's more time to develop new district boundaries.
"Phase two is more flexible," she says. "It also provides a more leisurely pace for districts."
Russo-Savage says some of the districts that had their mergers voted down in the first phase can now come up with different plans.
And single towns that weren't included in phase one consolidations can find new districts to work with.
"Having a second phase gives them the time to have those conversations in their community about what's best as far as providing educational opportunities for their children," Russo-Savage says. "Especially in light of increasing poverty and declining enrollment and concerns about affordability."
The State Board of Education is also preparing for the different plans it will see during the next phases of Act 46.
The board recently asked Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe to help develop the process for considering alternative structure mergers.
Holcombe says the state board will have some tough decisions to make as it considers alternative merger proposals over the next few years.
"As we move into the next round we're going to find more systems that don't meet those strict criteria that were set out in the first phase," says Holcombe. "And the reality is yes, absolutely, if you've got diversity of structure it's going to be a little bit trickier, but, that's the price of having diversity, and I think that's what Vermonters have chosen."
Districts that are merging under the criteria of Act 46's second phase must hold votes before July 2017.
Every district in the state is expected to be operating under a newly approved district structure before July 2019.