How Vermont's Act 46 District Merger Plans Fared On Town Meeting Day

Mar 8, 2017

Town Meeting Day voters weighed in on 10 Act 46 school district merger plans Tuesday. The results were almost split, with six plans gaining approval and four plans being rejected by voters.

And if there's one take away from Tuesday's results, it's that school choice remains an important consideration when people vote on the consolidation plans.

Scroll down for an interactive map showing the status of Act 46 mergers across the state.

School choice has been a thorn in the side of Vermont's school district consolidation law from the start.

When Act 46 first got off the ground in 2015, there was confusion over whether newly merged districts could include towns with and without school choice.

The State Board of Education was forced to clarify the rule, and say that districts can not include towns with and without choice.

The Act 46 plans that were considered on Tuesday represented a broad range of ideas, and they included districts that kept choice and others that would have eliminated it.

And the voters made their feelings known accordingly.

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Chart by Sara Simon

In the Windham Central Supervisory Union, the towns split into two camps, and two individual Act 46 plans were considered.

Brookline, Newfane, Jamaica, Townshend and Windham don't have choice, and their plan was approved, even though Windham, the smallest school, rejected it.

But three other Windham Central towns — Dover, Wardsboro and Marlboro — have choice, and the Act 46 plan would have eliminated Marlboro's middle school and changed the choice system. That plan was rejected.

"It's very emotional, and it's very real when you have to reduce what your offerings are," says Windham Central Superintendent William Anton. "And I think you see that in the vote. And it's totally understandable."

This map illustrates the status of Act 46 district merger votes as reported by the Agency of Education. Many districts that have not held merger votes are examining alternative governance structures.

Anton says voter participation for both plans was pretty strong, so there was support for the non-choice plan, and input from a lot of voters on the plan that was rejected.

He adds that there was strong opposition in Marlboro and Wardsboro leading up to the vote, and he says all of the issues that were facing those small schools before the vote remain in place.

"In those particular communities, it's my responsibility to work with them," Anton says. "We have to work together to see what is the best path forward that they want, that the law allows, that the law dictates and that the future can make sustainable."

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The towns of Westminster, Athens and Grafton also have limited school choice, and that option would have been lost under the Act 46 plan in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union.

All three of those towns rejected the plan, which doomed the district's move toward consolidation.

And while school choice might have changed the minds of some voters in Windham Northeast and Windham Central, up in the Northeast Kingdom, retaining school choice appeared to get those plans over the finish line.

Two Act 46 plans for 18 towns in Caledonia and Essex counties allowed the towns to keep choice, and the mergers passed by an overwhelming margin.

"We needed to make sure any plan that we came up with provided opportunities for students," says Michael Clark, superintendent of the Essex Caledonia Supervisory Union."The plans had to maintain school choice or improved it. It had to keep our small school culture and ... there needed to be opportunities for taxpayers."

In the new NEK School Choice District, 10 small schools that are spread out across the Kingdom all have pre-K-through-12 school choice.

The second new district, which is called Kingdom East, covers eight towns and seven schools.

"I think what's really exciting about the work that the committee did in the Northeast Kingdom is that it brought the communities together," says Clark. "So instead of thinking about this in terms of a town, people in the Northeast Kingdom today are thinking about education in terms of a region."

In the other end of the state, the towns around Manchester in the Bennington-Rutland district supported their plan, which retained the high school choice option.

While only six of the 10 plans were approved Tuesday, supporters of Act 46 can still claim a pretty successful day.

There were two merger plans among the towns in Rutland Central and Rutland Southwest, and the way the plans were written, both of them had to be approved for either one to move forward.

In the end, believe it or not, a single vote in Wells decided the fate of both plans, which would have impacted about 1,260 kids.

So if that one vote swung the other way, eight of the 10 plans would be moving forward.

In the last round of Act 46 merger votes, a lot of the plans were written up among school districts that have worked together, and among districts that were willing and ready to go before voters.

Now we're in the second phase of Act 46, and according to Donna Russo-Savage, of the Agency of Education, towns have to work harder to come up with proposals that work, and then convince the voters.

Russo-Savage has been working with school boards across the state on their merger plans, and she says she was somewhat surprised by how well the plans did Tuesday.

"These were very complex areas of the state, and the communities worked hard to put these proposals forward," she says. "The earlier proposals that we saw, that were approved last year, had structures that were simpler to come together. These had more differences and more things to be worked out."

This was the second time the towns in the Addison-Rutland supervisory union tried to merge.

Last April, the town of Orwell was considered a "necessary" town, and the merger proposal failed when Orwell voted "no." This time around, all of the towns were only considered "advisable."

Orwell once again rejected the plan Tuesday, as did the town of Fair Haven.

But Benson, Castleton, Hubbardton and West Haven voted "yes," and those four towns will make up the new Slate Valley Unified Union School District.

Four of the six towns in Windsor Central approved their merger plan Tuesday, and Killington, Bridgewater, Pomfret and Woodstock will consolidate under a single board.

Barnard and Reading turned down the Windsor Central plan.