A nearly 200-page report was released by the Vermont Agency of Education on Friday, and school districts around Vermont are going through the state's school consolidation recommendations.
Acting Education Secretary Heather Bouchey found it doesn't make sense for 22 school districts to merge. But the proposal does point to 18 others where the districts should be forced to consolidate — even when the voters disagree.
The secretary was required to put out this report per the Act 46 law, which was signed by then-Gov. Peter Shumlin back in June 2015. Act 46 made it so that the preference was a single board with representatives from nearby towns and that one board governed all the schools in the consolidated district.
Act 46 rolled out in phases, and according to the Agency of Education, around 68 percent of students in Vermont currently live in districts that approved a merger plan.
But what about the rest? Those districts that wanted to not merge and instead operate under an "alternative governance structure" submitted a "Section 9 proposal" — and Friday's report is the agency's response to those proposals.
Of those 22 school districts around the state where the acting secretary is not recommending any merger, there are two main reasons for that recommendation:
- For 12 of them, it's just not practical now.
- For the other 10, it's not legally possible because of differing tuition structures and operations from nearby schools. Most of those are small, single-town school districts.
But then there are those 18 districts whose alternate governance structure plans were not accepted — and despite their respective Section 9 proposals, the agency has recommended a merger anyway.
Let's take a look at how reaction to different proposal recommendations played out in Vermont communities on opposite ends of the state.
The Act 46 discussions in the Brattleboro Union High School District were time-consuming, difficult — and at times, personal.
"What I do regret from the whole process is that it became so divisive. That it became so antagonistic," said Jill Stahl Tyler, who chairs the Brattleboro Town School Board and sat on the Act 46 study committee.
The statewide report that came out last week is filled with stories from communities around the state that struggled to come up with their own merger plan. But among the towns of Brattleboro, Guilford, Dummerston and Putney, there was never full agreement among the school boards, or the voters, on how to move forward.
Stahl Tyler said the Act 46 committee did come up with a plan. And she said a majority of the committee bought in and believed the kids in the district would benefit. But voters in each of the four towns rejected it by a wide margin.
"I felt like what we actually came up with, as a study committee, was the best possible merger under the constraints and the instructions of the law," Stahl Tyler said.
So the secretary of education had to look at the plan, weigh the sentiment of the voters and make a decision about the future of the schools.
In the end, the Brattleboro Union High School District was one of the 18 districts in the state that could face a forced merger.
But Dummerston is dead set against merging, and Kristina Naylor — the Dummerston School Board chair — said her town is not done fighting.
"I don’t know what the town can live with," Naylor said. "They’re not presenting any kind of compromise to Dummerston whatsoever."
In the report, the secretary of education says Act 46 doesn’t consider "community sentiment," as a reason not to merge. But Naylor said if Montpelier is making decisions against what local voters want, there may be bigger issues than just figuring out how to manage schools.
"They’re saying very clearly, our governor is saying, votes don’t matter," Naylor said. "We had a huge turnout. All the clerks said so. It’s Orwellian, I mean, that votes don’t matter — doesn’t matter what people say. So I feel very concerned about that."
Throughout the report, the secretary of education says Act 46 requires the statewide plan to adopt merging as the preferred model of governance. And in each of the decisions to force a merger, a public vote or a reluctance to share debt or the fear of closing a small school were not reasons enough to allow school boards to remain independent.
The Lamoille County town of Wolcott is one of those 22 communities that didn't receive a merger recommendation. The Wolcott school goes through sixth grade and students have school choice after that.
The other towns in the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union either belong to a union school district or, in the case of Craftsbury, have a town middle and high school.
"When I saw that they had accepted our alternative structure for the S.U. [supervisory union], I was very happy because it relieves a lot of tension questions about where we go from here," said Peter Burgess, chair of the Wolcott School Board. "And it leaves Wolcott essentially as it is, for now."
For now, because the report also suggests the State Board of Education consider eliminating the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union. It recommends placing Wolcott in the Lamoille South Supervisory Union, instead.
Still, Burgess said he believes the Orleans Southwest alternative governance proposal laid out a solid case to keep Wolcott from merging its school district, and he’s glad the secretary agrees.
"The case was: we are so unique, and each individual district within the S.U. is so unique, that trying to make us merge will create more problems for whoever you try and make us merge with," Burgess said.
The thing to remember is that the secretary’s plan is a proposal. Ultimately, it will be up to the State Board of Education to come with a final plan before Nov. 30.
Prior to that, opponents can ask the State Board of Education to reject the secretary’s proposal. The board has said they plan to hold three regional meetings in the coming months to hear comments on the Agency of Education proposal.
And while the final statewide plan is supposed to go into effect a year from now, the secretary recommends the State Board of Education refrain from redrawing supervisory union boundaries as part of that plan. In fact, the acting secretary suggested any state-mandated supervisory union changes should not go into effect until at least 2020.
Was your community included in the Agency of Education's report? What was your reaction? Does your community plan to go before the State Board of Education? Let us know in the comments below.