Upcoming Merger Votes Will Put Vermont's Act 46 To The Test

Feb 25, 2016

Act 46 changes how Vermonters govern their local schools. And discussions are underway across the state as communities try to figure out how to implement the new law.

Interactive map: Explore the status of school district consolidation plans around the state.

Some schools have moved forward with their merger plans, but the most difficult fights are still ahead.

Act 46 gives schools three years to merge voluntarily with neighboring districts, and the state offers tax breaks to communities that take the initiative and are able to get their merger plans passed before July 1.

The law says the Agency of Education can force mergers with schools that don't have plans in place before July 2019.

George Ambrose, chairman of the Rutland South Consolidation Committee, says the district wants to move forward with its merger plan to avoid having the state come in and do it.

 "If we act now, then we are in a position of controlling our own destiny versus having someone in Montpelier control it for us. That's the choice," Ambrose says.

The Rutland South Consolidation Plan is one of five that will be considered on Town Meeting Day.

Over the last 15 years, Vermont has lost about a quarter of its students. Smaller schools with declining enrollments find it increasingly challenging to offer robust educational programs as student counts drop.

Tinmouth Elementary School is one of the smallest schools in the state, and it is one of four schools in Rutland South's proposed merger.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Supporters of Act 46 say small schools will have access to more resources in a larger district. The law seeks to eliminate single, local boards that manage schools.

Under the consolidation agreements, four, or five or six schools are governed by a single board voluntarily – put together, generally, based on population counts.

Critics, meanwhile, have pegged Act 46 as a move that would close small schools and wrangle local control away from communities.

"If we act now, then we are in a position of controlling our own destiny versus having someone in Montpelier control it for us." - George Ambrose, Rutland South Act 46 Study Committee Chairman

But State Board of Education Chairman Stephan Morse says the law will force real change in Vermont's education system. 

"This is revolutionary legislation," Morse says. "Vermont has not changed its school governance structure since the 1890s. And so this is monumental."

Along with the vote in Rutland South, voters in Addison Central, Franklin Central, Addison Northwest and Orange Southwest hold votes on Town Meeting Day.

Voters in Lamoille North and Addison Rutland will weigh in on their merger plans on April 12.

Explore the status of school district consolidation efforts around the state:

According to the Agency of Education, another five districts are actively trying to finish their consolidation proposals to meet the July 1 deadline, and receive the tax breaks offered under the accelerated merger plan.

If all the merger plans that are up for votes in the coming months are approved, about a third of the students in Vermont will be attending schools in newly consolidated districts before July 2017.

The ones that will follow starting later this year and into next year will be where towns are going to have more difficulty coming together under one governance structure. So in other areas of the state there will be unique things that'll just be very difficult for towns to come together." - Stephan Morse, State Board of Education chairman

Morse says he's pleasantly surprised that there's been so much activity spurred by the new education law.

But he says the debate will get much stickier as the state board tries to convince the more reluctant towns to come up with their merger plans.  

"The ones that will follow starting later this year and into next year will be where towns are going to have more difficulty coming together under one governance structure," he says. "Geography will have something to do with it. History and tradition will have a lot to do with it. So in other areas of the state there will be unique things that'll just be very difficult for towns to come together."

Issues around school choice, town and school district property ownership and debt, and potential school closures have all come up as roadblocks to consolidation.

And there's also some healthy skepticism of the claim that Montpelier knows what's best for Vermont's students and communities.

Dan Normandeau, of Dummerston, calls the process "heavy-handed."

"It's been [a] one-sided, manipulated, overly-restricted process, riddled with insufficient, incomplete and misleading information, and driven at a breakneck speed with little concern for the public process." - Dan Normandeau, Dummerston resident

"It's been one-sided, manipulated, overly-restricted process, riddled with insufficient, incomplete and misleading information, and driven at a breakneck speed with little concern for the public process," he says.

Normandeau was trying to convince the Windham Southeast Act 46 committee to give up its consolidation work.

The discussions in Windham Southeast, which includes Brattleboro and four surrounding towns, offer insight to some of the challenges school districts face.

The town of Vernon has school choice, but could likely lose it under a merger plan, and now the town is considering pulling out if the rest of the district holds a vote before July 1.

Windham Southeast hoped to have its plan ready for Town Meeting Day.

Schools in Windham Southeast are trying to get an Act 46 consolidation plan in place before a July 1 deadline.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

The district is now shooting for a June vote, though some board members say they should take their time and forgo the first-year tax breaks.

For districts that miss the July 1, 2016 deadline, merger plans that are approved before July 1, 2017, receive a slightly reduced tax incentive.

For those towns that are not moving toward consolidation before Nov. 30, 2017, the secretary of education has the authority to create a proposal to realign and force mergers.