MONTPELIER — Eleven school supervisory unions are pursuing accelerated mergers, far more than education officials expected since passage of a new law that encourages school district consolidation, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe told a legislative committee Wednesday.
About 28 study committees also have been formed around the state to examine whether to consolidate, Holcombe said as she provided an update on the law to the House Education Committee.
Passed six months ago, Act 46 addresses declining enrollment and rising costs by providing tax incentives to districts that consolidate governance structures with a goal of saving money through efficiencies and providing equal education to students across the state. Vermont has nearly 60 supervisory structures, including 46 supervisory unions, overseeing 277 school districts.
"An accelerated merger makes a lot of sense for some communities. It makes sense for some communities we actually didn't expect it to make sense for and that's been sort of the surprising part of it," Holcombe said.
Moving slower or thinking about an alternative education structure is appropriate for other communities, she said.
The Education Agency reviews the consolidation proposals to make sure they conform to the new law. They are voted on locally and must be approved by the state Board of Education. The agency expects 15 local votes on consolidation plans around the state in 2016. Accelerated mergers would be operational by July 1, 2017.
Earlier this month three Vermont communities — Essex, Essex Junction and Westford — voted to become the first in the state to merge into a single school district.
The superintendents of the Essex Town School District and Chittenden Central Supervisory Union said merging will benefit both students and taxpayers.
"The curriculum will be aligned, common assessment models will be created and used to monitor performance using one agreed upon metric and teacher and leader development will be better coordinated based on the needs of students – these changes alone will ensure education quality and equity for all kids," said Essex Town Superintendent Mark Andrews.
An unintended consequence is the chance for communities to start talking about unification strategies and work together to make change, said CCSU Superintendent Judith Denova.
"Act 46 positions both schools and communities to engage in big picture thinking, alter the way systems currently work, and focus on outcomes and access to resources that will best meet the needs of those we serve," she said.