BRATTLEBORO — Tax incentives associated with Act 46's "accelerated merger" are seen worthwhile by some members of a committee tasked with studying the new education law. But getting individual towns to vote affirmatively for a consolidated district is another matter altogether.
A recent meeting had officials within the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union school system wondering whether the option would still be considered.
"I wouldn't say we closed that door at all. We haven't done our due diligence," said Alice Laughlin, committee chairwoman. "I would want to put it to a vote that we weren't going to pursue that. Time is running out. We've done a huge amount of research."
The accelerated merger involves turning a supervisory union into an operating "preferred structure" by July 1, 2017, according to the state's Agency of Education. A supervisory district would be created and homestead property tax rates would drop by 10 cents the first year then 8 cents in the second, 6 cents in the third, 4 cents in the fourth and 2 cents in the last. Existing small school grants would turn into merger support grants paid out annually while a transition facilitation grant would either give the district $150,000 or 5 percent of the base education amount multiplied by the new district's average daily membership. The goal is to have that membership reach 900 at the minimum.
Laughlin noted there being frustration with a potential merger between the towns that are already members of the supervisory union, calling to mind Vernon's situation. There, students are offered school choice after elementary school, whereas the other towns within the supervisory union belong to a district that sends their kids to Brattleboro Union High School. It is likely residents in Vernon do not want to give up school choice.
Laughlin still wants more legal advice regarding language as the committee continues writing a report on the "accelerated merger" option. Several other possible district formations are going to be explored but she wonders if they will only circle back to the "preferred structure" or a similar version of it.
"One of the issues that keeps coming up is Brattleboro has more residents," said Laughlin. "There's definitely a small-town/big-town dynamic."
In any case, committee members say they have learned a lot through discussion. And that can at least lead to greater efficiencies within the supervisory union.
"There's exhaustion just talking about such a merger because it's hard. None of us are going to get what we want," said Laughlin, noting the difficulty sometimes in remembering one the goals of Act 46, which is greater equity for students. "Basically, it's a business. We're talking about creating a new business out of five, actually seven considering WSESU and BAMS (Brattleboro Area Middle School) as another unit."
In her report titled "A Primer from the Act 46 Study Committee Chair," she talks about school closure and says the committee's draft report included language forbidding the closure of any schools for at least the first five years of the new district operating. Necessary before any closure would be an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the full membership of the new district's board of directors and an affirmative vote of the town in which the school is located. But she said there are one or two committee members who are "adamant" that towns should not be given a "veto."
"People are having a hard time trusting the approach of other towns' citizens. That's a big step for people to take and yet we need to figure out how to make that step," Laughlin said, noting that if decisions aren't made locally then the state will make them eventually. "Vermont has significantly less kids than it did 10 years ago and our tax dollars are rising at a pretty steady rate so it's easy to suspect that it's not sustainable, so something has to change."
Not only will decisions be made, she said, but the tax benefits will go away. The Legislature wants all new districts ready by 2019 or the state's Board of Education will intervene by 2019. Also, incentives are reduced each year.
As Laughlin acknowledged there being "many things to still look at," she wondered whether it would be better to take more time to have conversations or whether they should happen underneath a unified union board.
Time is of the essence as June 30 nears. That is when mergers need to be approved by the electorate, according to the AOE. And if the WSESU merger is deemed worthy of going to a vote before then, Laughlin said a report likely would need to be discussed with the state's Board of Education by the middle of April. The committee would have to wrap up its report in the next couple weeks and go to local school boards for feedback towards the end of March. The committee expects to meet with the state's Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe on March 17.
If the merger is to be proposed, Laughlin said she would like to see "very in-depth forums" held in each of the five communities.
Brattleboro Town School Board Chairwoman Jill Stahl-Tyler compares the process to making a stew.
"We are all adding into it and not everyone agrees that everything that someone else adds should go in, and some people would like to add in something that someone objects to. In the end, though, we will have made the best stew that we all can make. Then, we'd like the other people to try it out. Maybe they will want to add another spice to the stew or really feel strongly that a specific vegetable should be replaced with another one. There will undoubtedly be some who outright object to it, say, maybe there are vegans, and we have to put in meat, or they are allergic to carrots and we have added them in. There might even be a few folks that say that this is the best doggone stew they could imagine," Stahl-Tyler said. "We want to adjust the stew with these suggestions. The state will have to approve our 'stew' too. Unfortunately, we don't have unlimited time to play with this recipe. It's our job, as the Act 46 committee, to make the best dang stew we can. Then, the voters get to decide if they want it — or not."
Joining the committee due to her feeling excited about the opportunities around working "even more closely" in the supervisory union, Stahl-Tyler said she remains enthused about the piece pertaining to equity. Currently, she sees the supervisory union as not being equitable and cites different tests scores as one example. But there's also the offerings: the programming available in one school may not be found in another.
In Brattleboro, the opportunities for learning foreign languages in elementary school can be greater than in outlying towns. That expense is more difficult to address in smaller schools because it's not spread out, said Stahl-Tyler.
After the four months or so since the committee's start, Stahl-Tyler said the main challenges involve school choice in Vernon, the topic of school closure and giving up local governance.
"Those three sticking points haven't consumed us. They've been there since the beginning but haven't gone away," she said. "Those are the areas we have to address before we move forward."
Altogether, the supervisory union's student population count has gone down 23 percent since 2004. And the trend is not changing any time soon, Stahl-Tyler said.
"We have a law. We have an opportunity. The numbers don't lie," she said. "You have to do something eventually. This is a chance for us to look at how we want to do it and what makes sense for us."
Wanting to offer taxpayers an opportunity for relief, Stahl-Tyler pointed to figures that Shaun Murphy, BUHS board member from Guilford, developed showing an altogether savings "just shy" of $1 million for residents living in towns within the supervisory union from the tax incentives alone. She said the committee is not looking at cutting staff or closing schools.
One idea floating around would see part-time library positions combined to make one. Then there are the costs associated with reducing five towns' annual Town Meeting school warnings down to one and having a combined audit.
Both committee members spoke for themselves and not for the committee.
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.