School Board Members Considering Alternative Models Under Act 46 To Meet In Westminster

May 11, 2017

Despite several years of trying, some Vermont school districts haven't been able to come up with merger plans under Act 46, the state's school district consolidation law.

And now these districts are trying to put together so-called alternative structures, which allow local boards to continue overseeing single schools.

The alternative models are untested, and each one will look a little different. So school board members from across the state will meet in Westminster this weekend to share ideas, and plot out their next moves during the final phase of Act 46.

Westminster School Board member David Major helped organize the meeting, and he's got some pretty strong feelings about act 46.

"I cringe every time a town votes to merge," Major says. "Because every merger vote means that that town will no longer have its own school board and will have less voice in the running of their schools. And that, to me, takes the life out of the community."

On Town Meeting Day, Westminster voters rejected a proposed merger plan with three other nearby towns, and now the school district is considering an alternative governance model to meet the provisions of Act 46.

Act 46 recognizes that not every school district in Vermont can merge with a nearby neighbor. Some towns are isolated by geography, and as districts around them have merged, they've been left out on their own.

And across Vermont, issues like school choice, shared debt and the fear of losing small school buildings have all stymied merger proposals.

But Act 46 says that even these orphaned districts have to present a plan to the State Board of Education, to convince them that an alternative model is in the best interests of the children in that region.

Major says he put together this weekend's meeting in Westminster to bring together school board members from across the state, who are all wading into these uncharted waters.

"The alternative governance hasn't really been defined, and so we all have to be pretty creative about being clear what the goals of Act 46 are, and also being clear what the goals of our own individual towns are," Major says. "So it helps in that wide open world, with so many different options, to get together and see what other people have been thinking about."

Scott Thompson is one of those people who's been thinking a lot about Act 46. Thompson is from Calais, one of the towns in Washington Central Supervisory Union.

The merger process fell apart in Washington Central a few months ago, mostly because East Montpelier had a lot of debt and the other towns would have had to help pay it down under the rules of Act 46.

After months of studying a supervisory-union-wide merger, the study committee disbanded.

Some Calais board members are considering an alternative governance model, and Thompson says he's traveling down to southern Vermont to talk with other school board members who are trying to put together their own proposals.

"If you're looking at an alternative structure, you're basically in it on your own, and climbing a pretty steep and rocky track," Thompsoin says. "So, it turns out that there are a lot of people in Vermont who are in the same boat."

In the end, the boat will probably include at least 60 districts that will have to come up with an alternative plan.

There's been a lot of confusion and debate swirling around the Act 46 alternative governance models. The State Board of Education only finalized its rules last month, and legislators were tweaking the law right up to the final days of this year's session.

Thompson says the meeting in Westminster will give school board members a chance to assess the changing landscape.

"There's a lot of new stuff out there that many of us haven't had a chance to process completely," he says. "We hope to come up with some sort of a really solid idea of how to go forward."

The House and Senate education committees agreed to give school districts more time to come up with their alternative plans, and the deadline was pushed from Nov. 30 into January of 2018.

Districts will be able to engage with the State Board and with the Secretary of Education as they try to convince them to accept the alternative plans.

The Secretary is expected to put together a statewide plan before June first 2018.

For more information about Saturday's meeting in Westminster, contact Major at info@vermontshepherd.com.