Cassidy: School Governance

Jan 20, 2016

Town Meeting Day is coming up, and in towns and villages all over the state, people will gather for the two-part meeting. In one part, voters consider and vote on their town’s budget, questioning and discussing it, line-item by line-item, special article by special article, and then they vote, either from the floor or by Australian ballot.

The other part of Town Meeting is for the school. Voters query the board on everything from teacher-student ratios to the state of the school building, and then they vote. They’re voting on their teachers’ and bus drivers’ salaries, the heating bill, music and sports programs, and perhaps special placements for a few students. They vote to invest in education for the children of the town, knowing that it’s expensive, but that lack of education has costs too. Sometimes they vote to cut the budget, directing their board to make specific cuts, or leaving it to the board to decide on cuts with the least possible damage to the education of the town’s children.

Future town meetings will be very different in towns that vote for Accelerated Mergers under Act 46, the education bill passed in the final days of last year’s legislative session. In those merged school districts, town school boards will simply cease to exist; a single district board will govern all the schools in the district, and a single budget will finance all those schools.

Already, boards of union high schools and career centers, made up of representatives from participating towns, govern and develop budgets that are voted before town meeting, and towns are simply assessed their share. That’s how it will be for the entire new, merged district.

For taxpayers voting for Accelerated Mergers, the law offers considerable incentives, including both direct grants to districts, and homestead tax reductions for five years. However, Accelerated Mergers are not the only model; towns can wait a year to form merged districts, and some towns can even opt for a supervisory union with multiple member districts, if it meets rigorous state standards.

Schools are at the center of most Vermont communities. While the law says explicitly that it's not the State’s intent to close small schools, the merged districts the law is pushing towns to create will distance our town schools from the direct oversight of the voters who support them.