Act 46: An analysis of the proposed school merger plan

The Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee has examined the school district merger proposed by the Act 46 Study Committee. We have heard from those supporting this merger as well as those opposing it. While we have analyzed the likely effects of the proposed merger through a financial lens, we recognize that the educational and operational aspects of Act 46 are the primary concerns. We do not recommend a vote based solely on financial considerations.

On Nov. 7, voters in Brattleboro, Putney, Dummerston, and Guilford will vote on the question of merging the four towns' school districts into one, also including Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, and the Windham Regional Career Center.

Our findings are as follows.

There are significant financial benefits if this merger is approved. For the next four years, there would be decreases in the Homestead Tax Rate. Additionally, some schools in the new district would receive state grants based on their size, and funds would be provided to offset the costs of the merger.

The Windham Southeast Supervisory Union has estimated the savings for the taxpayers to be $1.9 million over the next four years. In our opinion, however, this estimate should be adjusted downward because of the income sensitivity provision of the education property tax for those with household incomes up to $140,000. Very roughly, the downward adjustment might be on the order of $0.3 million, to $1.6 million.

The tax benefits listed above will take effect if the merger is approved by the voters on Nov. 7. If the merger is not approved, the state's implementation plans under Act 46 will continue, with a target date of July 1, 2019, but without any tax benefits. We think it is more likely than not that the state will implement a reorganization plan similar to or the same as the current proposed merger. Therefore it would be financially beneficial to taxpayers to approve the plan now, rather than end up with same plan but no tax benefits.

The tax benefits for Brattleboro may be decreased because of the difference in current educational property tax rates in the four towns. We believe, however, this conclusion and any calculations based on it are uncertain due to the complexity of the school funding formula and due to potential budgetary savings under the proposed merger.

Potential budgetary savings are themselves projections based in part on prior experience locally (e.g. with merging special education budgets at the WSESU) and in other school districts (those already merged under Act 46). The WSESU projects at least a 1 percent overall decrease in aggregated school spending if the districts are merged; proponents of an alternative plan disagree, and think no long term savings are likely.

While it's possible that an alternate governance structure may emerge, time is limited to submit it for approval by the state. The deadline for submission is Dec. 26. As of this writing, there is no specific plan from those opposing the Act 46 Study Committee proposal. The financial effects of any such plan are unknown while the tax benefits are guaranteed if the merger is approved now.

Unforeseen and expensive events over the course of the proposed merger are of concern but a unified district would be more adept at handling staffing challenges and operational gaps.

The Brattleboro Town Finance Committee sees significant financial benefits if voters approve this merger on Nov, 7.

The members of the Finance Committee are Chairman Franz Reichsman, Avery Schwenk, Vice-Chairman Ralph Meima, Abby Sweeney, Alex Fischer and Scott Smyth. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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