The State Board of Education has begun letting districts know what is likely expected of them if they hope to comply with Act 46 through an alternative governance structure rather than merger.
The board last week approved detailed draft guidelines, and members were struck by the high expectations for proposals for an alternative structure.
Board member Bonnie Johnson-Aten, a principal at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, said the guidance hit the right tone. "The bar is set really high. That is important because alternative structures are supposed to be the exception, and I think it is important that it is as high as it is. It shouldn't be easy for boards."
Some of the holdout districts want to keep doing things the way they have been, and some want to change but can't easily fit into any of the merger models available.
Act 46 provides some basic requirements for districts that don't plan to voluntarily merge, but boards needed more specific guidelines and rules. The state board in June instructed the Agency of Education to draw up guidance for alternative proposals.
Next month the board will consider a draft of the actual rules for such structures. The rules process is longer, so the board wanted to issue guidance as soon as possible to school districts.
"You are not required by Act 46 to adopt (rules) until the summer of 2018. You are asking for them almost two years in advance," the agency's Donna Russo-Savage pointed out to board members.
According to the guidelines, not only will districts planning to go the alternative route have to prove they are meeting and exceeding the five goals set forth in Act 46 dealing with education quality, equity, opportunity and cost-effective management, but they will have to provide thorough socio-economic and outcome data such as test scores, graduation rates and student-to-teacher ratios.
Four pages of indicators and questions outline what school districts must prove they have done and can continue to do to apply for an alternative structure. They also have to hold discussions with school districts surrounding them and show that they have exhausted every other merger option available to them. Ultimately, they have to prove that their school district is an "exception" to the preferred model of a supervisory district with at least 900 students.
"Act 46 clearly provides that the state board shall approve the creation or continuation of (a supervisory union) only if the board believes it is best it is viewed as an exception," Russo-Savage told board members.
A preferred, unified system has one school district and one school board responsible for educating all students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. There are four common governance structures that merger proposals can use.
Alternative structures are for those that don't merge into one of these by July 1, 2019. School districts choosing this pathway have to bring a proposal to the secretary of education and the state board by the end of November 2017. State board members don't have to act on the proposals, according to the law; they just need to consider them when developing the final statewide governance plan in the summer of 2018.
Act 46 directs the state board to approve alternative structures only if it believes it is the best way for the proposed area to meet the goals of the entire region. It places the burden for proving this in the hands of the school districts making the case for an alternative structure.
School districts will need data to prove they are able to meet and exceed each of the five goals set forth in Act 46. Some Act 46 study groups have been frustrated with what they say is a lack of available data collected by the Education Agency.
Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, told state board members that the agency needs to get data to the school boards so they can comply with Act 46. "Our hope is that the agency will be able to provide the data being asked for by the guidance, particularly the education data collected by (education quality reviews). If that is the expectation that they will produce that data and analysis, then it needs to become available very soon," Mace said.
State board member Peter Peltz agreed with her, saying that getting data to school board members and study committees is "really critical." Peltz said his wife, who is a teacher, is on a school board and it needs certain data to know if it is doing OK. Otherwise "how do they figure that out? Without that they are adrift," he said.