Photo Gallery | Secretary of Education visits Bellows Falls
BELLOWS FALLS — With no inhibitions, folks who send their children to schools in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union expressed their opposition to Act 46 at Bellows Falls Union High School Wednesday night.
Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe presented a Powerpoint presentation that addressed Act 46 and stated the reasons for it, pertaining to Rockingham, Westminister, Grafton and Athens. This was not the first time that people at the gathering had heard about the proposal, so many came with scripts and their minds already made up.
"Because the Westminster School Board is proud of our town meeting form of government and believes it to be a rare and valuable model of participatory democracy, the Westminster School Board unanimously voted to ask the Legislature to appeal Act 46," said Westminster School Board member David Major. "And that's not to say that we don't want to work on efficiency or equity, but we want to do it in such a way where we don't destroy what we hold to be a very important part of our tradition and the government of our town."
According to the Vermont Agency of Education, Act 46 is "an opportunity for districts and supervisory unions to unify existing, disparate governance structures to preferred governance structure by 2020." This is a multi-year process that includes three phases of tax incentives for school districts that voluntarily merge into the most common governance models, plus a supervisory union with multiple merged member districts.
One of the greatest challenges that Holcombe expressed is the continuing decline of students in schools. Of the four schools presented, Westminster has shown the greatest decrease in student population, 40 percent from 1997 to 2014. Holcombe suggests that communities ask themselves if their buildings have excess capacity, and if they were not paying for empty seats, what else could they buy? Other challenges mentioned were that this area has a higher student-to-staff ratio, enrollment is declining yet spending is increasing, and Grafton and Rockingham are paying higher tax rates than the Vermont average.
"If you have fewer kids ... it's going to increase the cost of trying to raise revenue to support those kids," said Holcombe. "So we've equalized your ability to raise revenue per pupil. And as your numbers drop, even if you keep the same level of spending, you're serving fewer kids, you're going to struggle to find the revenue to do so, and that's kind of why we're having that conversation."
In some ways these four towns are bigger than other parts of the state, so they are more insulated. According to Holcombe, Vermont's data shows that schools are beginning to cut out core educational services from their programs, such as guidance counselors, art, music and foreign languages. Her point is that when populations drop, these towns struggle to raise the revenue to keep those types of programs.
The Vermont Agency of Education has provided superintendents with guidelines to help school systems decide how they can merge into one district, with one school board, and at least 900 students. Act 46 gives the small school systems three main options — accelerated mergers, conventional mergers and alternative mergers.
Communities that don't participate in the accelerated merger system, need to approve a merger plan by 2017. But the tax breaks for accelerated mergers is 10 cents, reduced annually by 2 cents per dollar of residential property value. Tax breaks for "conventional" merger districts start at 8 cents, reduce by 2 cents each year, and end after the fourth year.
"Tax incentives are a means to an end, not an end in themselves," said Homcombe. "If you don't have a vision for how you're going to use those incentives as transition aid to help you develop a better and stronger system, you're not doing your kids any favors," said Holcombe.
She also encouraged the audience to think "long term" as opposed to just about the kids they are serving currently. Holcombe finished her 50-minute presentation and left the floor open to an hour-long "Q & A" where members voiced their opinions.
Some members of the audience expressed their frustration with the representatives from certain school board districts that did not attend the event. At other times the attendees applauded one another for expressing themselves.
At one point in the presentation Holcombe displayed a metaphor for innovation and change that was created by a business professor from Dartmouth. She shared this with attendees because she wanted to challenge them with their "given pressures" to think about how they can "raise the bar" for themselves. In this model it showed the evolution of high jump form and how slowly, after time, these changes have helped athletes reach greater heights in competition.
One audience member responded to this metaphor and felt that the implementation of Act 46 would mean losing an important part of the "athlete" in order to get over that bar.
"Town meeting is something that I would say is a tradition that is best, it's where democracy in the United States is actually truly alive," he said. "And to imagine that not happening, it's like cutting off a body part."
From here schools districts will have to choose the route that is best suited for their community and students.