Many will recall that Acts 60 of 1997 and Act 68 of 2003 were the result of the Vermont Supreme Court having struck down the previous state-funding system and directing the legislature to come up with a new system that would eliminate the inequities among the local school districts. The legislature did this by establishing a statewide property tax to pay for the education of all students. The rationale was that towns with wealthy grand lists – lots of businesses and second home owners – could spend more on their students then towns with very few businesses or second home owners on their grand list. The financing mechanism created by Act 60 put in place put an equalized property tax of all properties in Vermont, income sensitized it for residents and over time the legislature has enacted policies to narrow the gap between education spending per pupil between communities, with the goal of promoting greater equity.
Act 46, the “Unification” plan for school districts was passed during the 2015 session and its general premise was to reduce inequities across the state by asking individual districts that operate the same grades, to partner with their neighbors and form bigger units. If you and I join our school boards together, now your students and my students become “our students” and we will ensure that “our students” have the same opportunities. There are obvious questions here about why the massive increases in education spending spurred by Act 60 did not fix the inequity of opportunity problem that spawned the Brigham lawsuit. While that discussion has by no means ended, it is not the subject of this column. With this update I intend to provide parents, residents (full time and weekend) and businesses with information about how to keep track of the Act 46 education reform which is taking shape through our valley.
To start, I am maintaining a page with links about the law Act 46, guidance provided by the Agency of Education and the Vermont School Boards Association on my website at https://laurasibiliavt.com/act-46/
Act 46 implementation progress across Vermont is happening unevenly – since the passage of Act 46 there have been a number of district merger votes, but none yet in southern Vermont and only a few successful votes in the Northeast Kingdom. This is likely due to a number of factors including topography, distance, population, economy, more variations in how schools operate and more variations in choice then in the Champlain Valley. Though there have been no votes in southern Vermont, work is being done, and in our valley work has been underway since the passage of Act 46.
We have two Supervisory Unions for the greater Deerfield Valley area. Windham Southwest Supervisory Union (WSSU) includes the joint contract districts of Wilmington and Whitingham which provide K-12 education for all of their students, Halifax, Readsboro and Stamford which maintain K-8 schools and offer school choice for students in 9-12 and Searsburg which has choice for students K-12. Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) includes Leland and Gray Union High School whose member towns Jamaica, Newfane, Brookline, Townshend and Windham all send their middle and high school students to. Each of those sending schools also maintain a K-6 elementary school. Also in Windham Central Supervisory Union are Dover and Wardsboro school districts which maintain K-6 schools with school choice for students 7-12, and Marlboro which operates a K-8 with choice fro grades 9-12.
The WSSU has submitted articles of agreement to the Vermont Agency of Education for Stamford, Readsboro and Halifax school districts to merge governance (boards and budgets). If the Agency approves those articles, they will then be put to a vote in each town. The WSSU vote is currently slated for this November. You can monitor the WSSU activity at http://www.windhamsw.k12.vt.us/
Over the summer, two study committees have formed in the WCSU. One is considering combining all of the boards and budgets of the Leland and Gray Union towns and the other is considering the consolidation of boards and budgets in Dover, Marlboro and Wardsboro. These study groups are working towards a timeline that would have a vote in the towns at or around Town Meeting day in March 2017. You can monitor the WCSU activity, including videotaped study committee meetings, at http://www.windhamcentral.org/home
In the WSSU and the WCSU there are also two non-operating districts, Searsburg and Stratton who have been engaged in discussions with other non-operating districts in other Supervisory Unions about consolidating their boards and budgets.
School districts that do not merge with another school district are required to propose they operate as an alternative district. The State Board of Education has recently provided guidance for districts that are considering this path forward. The requirements for proposing an alternative structure are stricter then proposing a merging of boards and budgets. The guidance for districts that do not voluntarily merge can be found here http://education.vermont.gov/documents/edu-sbe-guidance-alternative-structures-act46-7-2016.pdf
With regard to the various levels of school choice that currently exist in the Valley, Section 4 of Act 46 specifically states that compliant districts cannot be forced to give up their existing school choice and that nothing in the Act is intended to take away school choice. It is important to note that a school district’s voters still have the ability to decide to change or alter school choice. The State Board of Education has elected to begin looking at the existing rules which allow independent and private schools to access public dollars. The Vermont School Boards Association, of which I am a board member, has testified that independent schools should be required to be held to a number of the same standards as public schools. A change in the rules of how independent/private schools can access public funding would require public meetings. To monitor this discussion, watch meetings, read materials and minutes presented at meetings go to http://education.vermont.gov/state-board
Very important conversations and votes about how we think about and provide for the education of students in the Valley are happening. There is no greater reflection of our community’s vitality and values then how we provide for our children’s education. Please join me in participating in as many of these conversations as possible and ensuring the Valley maintains high quality education for all of our students.