BRATTLEBORO — Shared services and the savings available through the state's "accelerated merger" path prompted an official to speak out in support of district consolidation.
"Act 46 lays out the necessity of districts to unify," said Shaun Murphy, Brattleboro Union High School District 6 School Board member and representative from Guilford who spoke to the Reformer on behalf of himself. "We're perfectly placed in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union to proceed with the unification because we're already a strong union."
The Windham Southeast Supervisory Union is made up of five towns. Each town has one representative on the District 6 board besides Brattleboro, which has five. All but Vernon, where kids have school choice, send their students to high school in Brattleboro.
Ten years ago, a bond was approved to fix up the high school for $57 million. Murphy said it was the largest renovation of a high school in Vermont. "It was a tremendous commitment from every town in the district. We're still paying for the bond."
Murphy's concerns follow an article that appeared Jan. 18 in the Reformer, "Consolidation could be costly," which presented projections showing Brattleboro taxpayers could see 5 percent increases in each of the five years if the accelerated path is pursued.
Ultimately, every town's property tax rate would need to be the same within the new district. For that to happen, towns whose rates are lower will have to raise their taxes more. In Brattleboro, school tax rates would need to increase by 46 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property over five years. And the higher municipal rates were cited as a reason for not wanting to move forward just for the tax incentives.
Savings from the incentives over five years could equal more than $2.9 million, according to Murphy, who plugged in each town's homestead education tax rate published by the Agency of Education in September then added them all together.
While those rates will change year to year, his projections were meant to show how residential taxpayers in each town could benefit from moving quickly. Either way, school districts are going to be involved in redistricting so he would like to see taxpayers make out from the deal.
In 2018, the State Board of Education will issue "a final statewide design that realigns unmerged districts" into governance structures that meet goals of the state, according to the Agency of Education. The accelerated mergers provide incentives if criteria is met, including their becoming operational as a supervisory district by July 1. Other consolidation options with incentives are available before the 2018 deadline.
Earlier this month, Murphy presented points to the Act 46 Study Committee, charged with exploring options around district consolidation within the supervisory union. The goal was to explain a vote would be next to impossible for annual Town Meeting Day.
The directors of a new nine member board would need to be voted in at Town Meeting.
"This came to a shock to us on the BUHS board because the petitions for such a position would have to be at the town office of all five towns as of Jan. 1 with 1 percent of the voters of the town in signature," he said. "The vote for acceptance of the accelerated path and the election of the members of the new board would have to take place on the same ballot on the same day."
The supervisory union's application would need to be reviewed by the State Board of Education before people submitted petitions. The board meets monthly and planned on meeting Jan. 19 so it would have been "too tight a timeline" for it to accept the articles of agreement, Murphy told the committee on Jan. 7.
"The accelerated path will therefore only happen at a special town school meeting in all five towns sometime between March 1 and June 30, 2016," he said. "I appreciate, as a citizen, all the work that the study committee has undertaken and hope that the accelerated path will come to a vote so that the people can have a voice."
Murphy also wrote in support of district consolidation in an upcoming Guilford Gazette article, stating that greater educational equity within the supervisory union and a reduction of educational costs could be possible if all went as planned.
"As an example, if Guilford has a need for an educator to help with a specific educational need and there is a student or students in another town with similar needs then that teacher's expertise could be shared, which would reduce the financial costs of both schools and the unified district," he wrote. "Last year, this formula was followed as special education costs became shared (supervisory union) wide and the ensuing savings amounted to $300,000."
That could be replicated district wide under a change in governance, he proposed.
Murphy's support for the accelerated merger does not only involve the tax incentives, which begin at 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value and decreases by two cents every year for five years. His concern for dwindling enrollment numbers was a motivating factor for lawmakers to pass Act 46 in June.
"In 15 years, (Vermont) lost approximately 25 percent of our students," he said. "Enrollment in Brattleboro is no different than any other community in Vermont."
The trend is expected to continue, too. Having checked birthrates in Vermont, Murphy said there are under 6,000 babies born annually. In the 1980s, that average was 9,000.
Also worth mentioning is Vermont being the second oldest state in the United States. Maine is the only place with a larger aging population.
The combination has placed a burden not only on educators but on property taxpayers, said Murphy, because there are fewer students in facilities meant to hold more.