An overwhelming majority of towns that have voted so far have chosen to unite with neighboring towns to create larger governance structures for their schools.
Districts around the state are studying whether to merge with neighboring districts as part of a state mandate known as Act 46. The landmark education law passed in 2015 is designed to encourage Vermont's 270-plus school districts to form larger units in response to a decline in the number of students attending Vermont's schools.
It is not known how many districts will ultimately decide whether to merge with neighboring towns, but in the first year of the district consolidation plan, 55 towns have voted to merge, and in 40 of those towns, voters overwhelming approved district unification plans.
Since last summer, 15 towns have rejected merger proposals.
School choice is often cited as a reason for failed mergers, but of the communities that voted down unification proposals, only four continue to offer school choices for students, while 11 operate schools.
Orwell, for example, which operates a grade school and whose students attend Fair Haven Union High School, voted against the Slate Valley Unified Union School District merger twice. In a 221 to 121 vote, Orwell rejected the merger in the first round, and that decision tanked the merger proposal for all six towns that were part of the unification plan. At the same time, voters in Hubbardton — where students have high school choice — voted in favor of the Slate Valley merger 66 to 13. The plan was also approved in Castleton, Fair Haven, West Haven and Benson.
Rep. Alyson Eastman, I-Orwell, said that concerns about local control trumped the benefits of the merger. Orwell's residents didn't relish the idea having only two seats on an 18-member school board. And there wasn't a big tax incentive for the town, Eastman said, because Orwell has been fiscally responsible with school spending.
Four school districts have agreed to give up school choice: Tinmouth (in a 234 to 28 vote), Fairfield (367 to 152), Westford (422 to 207) and St. George (64 to 19). At the same time, Chittenden and Mendon (together voting 351 to 7 for merging) preserved choice in their school districts by agreeing to a side-by-side merger.
The Elmore-Morristown merger is often cited as part of an argument that Act 46 forces towns to give up school choice, but the merger was not part of the new law. After two votes, one in November and another in December, the Elmore school district decided to forgo tuitioning students in order to merge with Morristown.
There are 94 towns that offer tuition to students to attend private or public schools for some or all grades. Of them, eight have voted on merger proposals. Four of those eight were in two supervisory unions where the Act 46 vote failed, although in Addison-Rutland it was Orwell — not a choice town — that sank the Slate Valley Unified Union School District proposal, while Hubbardton supported it. In Franklin Northeast, three tuition towns all voted against a merger: Bakersfield (99 no to 89 yes), Berkshire (113 to 78) and Montgomery (219 to 52).
Four of the choice towns that voted on mergers supported proposals that were approved. Chittenden, Mendon and Goshen all voted to create a side-by-side arrangement in Rutland Northeast securing their school choice options. And Belvidere, another choice town, voted to form a regional educational district with Eden, Hyde Park and Johnson in Lamoille North.
Suzanne Hull-Parent, a school board member in Enosburgh, where a proposed merger failed, said she sat outside the polls to make sure people had access to all the facts about Franklin Northeast's proposal. "They said no small schools would close for four to 10 years, but the reality is that can be overturned by a majority of the new board, so the possibility is there. It is a false promise," she said.
Enosburgh operates schools, but in the proposed merger, Berkshire, Bakersfield and Montgomery would have had their choice options limited to only public schools. That may have contributed to the merger failing, although in Bakersfield it was rejected by only 10 votes.
Hull-Parent, who voted no, said there was a feeling the supervisory union was pushing for a yes vote, and that turned off residents. "There are always two sides to a story, and we are only hearing one, and that makes us reluctant. We don't know enough about it to vote yes," she said.
Another indication of the current Act 46 state of play are study committees. There are two kinds: exploratory and formal. School districts that decide to explore the possibility of joining together can get $5,000 from the state to help defray costs. The formal study committees are meant for areas that have decided they want to move forward and draw up articles of agreement for merger. These committees get $20,000 from the state to help pay for consultants and legal work.
Of the 94 towns that offer school choice, 86 are involved in a study committee process. Twenty-two are part of exploratory committees, and 64 are engaged in formal study committees.
But five school districts are not currently studying anything, four of which are in the North Country Supervisory Union that covers Newport and nearby towns. The other is St. Johnsbury, which is its own supervisory district.
John Castle, superintendent of North Country Supervisory Union, said his communities are worried small schools will be closed. "We just don't believe that shifting to a centralized governance model will ensure efficiencies and cost savings," Castle said.
"There are different ethos and cultural disparities in the greater Chittenden County area than there are in the (Northeast Kingdom)," Castle said. "The rural nature of some of our communities, the large, spread-out geography of those communities in the far reaches of the supervisory union need to feel like they have some control over their identity, over their community, and this gets marginalized if we create a centralized model."