Act 46: To merge or to collaborate, that is the question

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Under Act 46 and amended by Act 49 We have two distinct and very different choices. We can merge our separate school districts which means giving up our local school boards and control. It would be run by a super board with Brattleboro having four seats and likely the two at-large seats. Guilford, Dummerston and Putney would each have one seat apiece. All staff would be hired and employed at the supervisory level, as opposed to the town level, and could be moved without their consent. All decisions about programming would also be at this level. This board could move grades — grades 7 and 8 in Putney and Dummerston are most at risk now — and after five years could close schools. However, the merger transition grant and slightly reduced property taxes for four years are meant to cover the costs of merging. Property taxes will then go back up and likely higher,

The second option is w     e can stay as a supervisory union with our own school boards, retain local control of programming and work collaboratively to make needed improvements to our supervisory union. Under the laws, this is called an alternative governance structure.

Act 46 as amended by Act 49, in looking to save money on pre-k through 12 education, requires schools to: provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities within in their districts that lead students to achieve or exceed the state's education quality standards; maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff; promote transparency and accountability; and are delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value.

I think that we can all agree with these worthy goals. Education in Vermont has become more expensive even as the number of students has declined substantially. There are greater numbers of students with severe emotional needs, increased numbers of students living in poverty and an increase of families in crisis for whom the schools have had to provide an array of human services. Despite hearing or reading comments about people who oppose the merger as being against change or fearful or not caring about the children, I know that people on both sides care deeply about the children and are not afraid of change.

The members of the merger study committee have spent untold hours on this merger proposal and have found inequities in our supervisory union. They have been thanked repeatedly for their work. The legal purpose of the 706(b) Study Committee is to look at the variety of merger options for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. There has been some confusion about this. From Donna Russo-Savage, legal counsel for the Vermont Agency of Education: "The board-created study committee, with members appointed from each participating school district, is responsible for preparing a proposal to create a unified (i.e., PK-12) union school district (UUSD) under 16 VSA 701a-724." This study committee could not legally look at the alternative to a merger. I believe that they have come up with what they believe is the best possible merger. However, that does not mean that one should vote out of loyalty to any person or group or for the time spent on the committee.

While the study committee has spent many, many hours to put together this merger agreement, I (many others around the state have also spent many hours on research, etc.) have spent over 1000 hours understanding what the legislature used to try to justify Act 46 (Picus Report), researching our option to remain a SU if we enhance it, testifying before the legislature, examining data, gathering information from a statewide organization including other superintendents, participating in the group working on enhancing the SU, reviewing all the Study Committee meetings, carefully reading the Articles of Agreement and all the appendices and their implications for the schools outside of Brattleboro. What the Articles of Agreement are really representing is in the appendices. Basically, they are promoting equal schools instead of the mandated equity. Since this was pointed out to Study Committee, they have changed their presentations to use the word equity.

Act 46/49 also contains a provision for an alternative governance structure which is defined as a supervisory union with member districts as a way to comply with the law. Statewide, at least 11 supervisory unions are pursuing this option and have actively helped each other out. Should WSESU vote down a merger proposal, then the SU must still meet the above goals of Act 46. These goals can all be met if we make improvements to the SU; this would involve change.

Both Dummerston and Brattleboro have official sub-committees for this express purpose. Putney is participating as an unofficial presence, Vernon has been attending and Guilford has had interested citizens. It is likely that Vernon could remain in the supervisory union.

As an SU, we should have been having these conversations years ago. -----Since class size has been a large driver of education costs, having SU wide school choice could help with balancing class sizes where needed. It would also offer those students who need something different with a better fit and a home school for children who move during the school year. In terms of middle schools, there again parents would have a wider range of options. Each of the schools in the SU has a unique program that has been developed over the years.

In the Study Committee's minutes from May 26, "Frank Rucker provided an explanation of an agency fund that he helped create while working at Windham Central SU. He stated that it is a way to for member districts to pool money and recognize small town needs." We can share some staff, but not lose control over the teachers in each of our schools. This is already being done. If all teachers are employed by the SU in a merger, then the potential is there to move staff when and where by the superintendent. However, the SU could do payroll for the different towns — it's a computer program. In fact, everything that the merger is proposing as benefits can be done as an enhanced SU through different funds and collaboration, not coercion. Inequities must be dealt with first. As class sizes increase, programming can be added if desired. The $150,000 grant and incentive school property tax reductions are meant to cover the cost of merging. Most of the towns that have merged are finding out that it is not enough money, thereby actually costing more. For Putney residents, the so called tax incentives amount to $400 over four years on a $200,000 homestead without even taking into account the property tax rebate from the State. Is giving up local governance worth that price?

I find the following quite interesting. From the Act 46 Implementation Project meeting held at the Marlboro Graduate Center on Monday, April 25: "Frank Rucker asked about the rationale for moving forward with a merger if the SU has a cohesive structure and student success. Donna Russo-Savage stated that Act 46 was not designed for this type of scenario."

The one thing that a merger does is make the transparency and accountability more confusing than school budgets already are. How is a $52-plus million budget more transparent than a $4 million one? It is not.

It is disturbing that study committee language focused on the need to say "not if, but when ..." unification will happen. This was in the SC minutes from Nov. 9, 2016 and has been used study committee presentations. So beware if that language is used in the run-up to the vote. What it really means is that certain school boards may not agree (my way or else, e.g. coercion) to be part of the alternative provided in law by improving our SU unless there is a demand from the public to do so. Voting against the merger is a way to do that.

However, if the merger is voted down and a particular town's school board does not participate in the alternative governance structure (the enhanced SU), concerned community members can do so and be present if a plan is submitted to the state. The implication that the state will merge us is directly refuted by Sec. Rebecca Holcombe of the Vermont Agency of Education in an email to Rep. Mike Mrowicki on Sept. 15, when he asked about it said, "I didn't say this, nor would Donna [AOE lawyer]. We don't make the laws at AOE; we apply the laws made by the Legislature. To be extremely clear: I don't have the authority to merge districts, so would never say this." The law implies this, but other state laws would make it very difficult.

I would urge everyone to read the Articles of Agreement all the way through the appendices. Of note is some outdated information and incorrect FY2016 education tax rates for Brattleboro and Guilford. Contrary to what is now being presented by the Study Committee, the Articles are providing equal, not equitable opportunities for children, so all schools would wind up with the same programming. Nowhere in those Articles is there anything about the school leadership councils making decisions that local school boards now make; they have no power. In fact, the Articles are written according to this advice from the minutes of Dec. 30, 2015. "There was discussion of wording related to school closure and how this decision would be made. In addition to a unified board vote, it was suggested that the town with the school closure have some saying the decision — possibly by vote. However, Frank Rucker and Ron Stahley recommended simple language that does not limit a future board's ability to act and will seek legal advice for the best possible wording." This is exactly what the Articles look like. Do you think you will have confidence in the judgements of the super-board five or 10 or 15 years from now?

A merger is forever. The Articles do not allow a town to vote on whether or not to close its school or certain grades in a school. WSESU has worked well for decades. Together, we can improve and enhance our SU to meet all the goals of Act 46 while retaining the local control over our schools. Vermont's motto is "Unity and Freedom." WSESU is a terrific example of that. Consolidating power in fewer hands in a merger is in direct opposition to our motto.

Elizabeth Adams is a retired early childhood educator, a parent of two children who went to Putney Central School, and the grandmother of another child that attends Putney Central School. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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