On Friday, the Vermont Agency of Education will release a proposed statewide merger plan.
School boards that have not yet merged under Act 46 — and are instead seeking approval for their "alternative governance structure" plans — will be watching closely to see if their proposals were accepted.
UPDATE Friday 6/1/2018 7:36 p.m. — The proposal has been released and can be found on the Agency of Education website. VPR will have more coverage on the report's contents and reaction to it early next week.
Over the past few months, the education secretary and Agency of Education staff met with school board members from across the state.
Those school board members were trying to convince the secretary to accept their alternative governance plans, allowing them to remain independent and not merge. School boards were allowed to submit these alternative plans per Section 9 of the Act 46 law, and according to the Agency of Education, 74 school districts had done so as of January.
Following former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe's abrupt resignation this spring, questions were raised about being able to stick to the plan schedule. That's because Holcombe had been an integral figure at these meetings, with districts under the assumption they were making their case directly to her. Still despite Holcombe's departure, the statewide plan schedule stayed on track.
Which brings us to Friday. It's those school boards that met with the agency and submitted a Section 9 proposal who will be paying particular attention to this statewide plan announcement since it's when they'll find out if their proposal was accepted, modified or rejected.
An important reminder: The agency's proposal being released on Friday is not the final word on the matter. It's the State Board of Education who has the final say, and they will vote on the statewide plan before Nov. 30.
So if communities are unhappy with the agency's proposal Friday, they can continue arguing their case before the State Board of Education in the coming months. The board has promised to hold three regional meetings around the state this summer to consider those arguments.
In the end though, the State Board of Education does have the power to tell a district they have to merge — and we'll have to wait and see how reaction to that kind of decision would play out.
Friday's report is just the latest development in this school district consolidation process, which kicked off when then-Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Act 46 in June 2015. The law was supposed to “encourage and support local decisions and actions” around school district mergers.
Back at that time, independent school boards — which generally came from single towns — oversaw their local schools. Under the new law, the preferred model was a single board, made up of representatives from a number of nearby towns, that governed all of the schools in the newly consolidated district.
Act 46 was rolled out in phases. School districts that voluntarily merged during the first two phases received financial incentives.
Over the past few years, Act 46 has encouraged school districts across the state to voluntarily merge. According to the Agency of Education, almost 68 percent of the students in Vermont now live in districts that approved a merger plan.
However from the start, Act 46 acknowledged that for some school districts it doesn’t make sense — or it’s not possible — to merge with a neighboring district.
Some towns rejected their proposed merger plan in townwide votes. And in other parts of the state, consolidation plans were never put together because Act 46 committees couldn’t reach consensus.
Under the law, districts that don’t merge have to present those alternative governance structure plans and try to convince the agency that it's the best option for its students — and that brings us back to Friday's announcement when we see which ones have made the grade at this point.