“I can’t emphasize enough that this basically has to pass,” said school board chair Homer “Chum” Sumner. “Like it, love it, or like it just lukewarm, the alternative just plain sucks.”
“The alternative being,” added Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Pratt, “we can’t say we’re going to be able to keep the doors open.”
Under Act 46, school districts that do not unify are vulnerable to losing their small school grants, which for Halifax amounts to approximately $70,000. Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford all currently receive small school grants, which they are dependent on.
“If they take our small schools grant, it would raise our per-pupil cost by around $700. And what you don’t want to do ever is get yourself in the penalty box,” said Sumner, referring to penalties schools face if their per-pupil spending rises above a threshold determined by the state each year. “Almost three-quarters of $1,000 up certainly puts you closer and closer to the penalty box.”
Under Act 46, in addition to keeping the small school grant, incentives that the schools access if they merge include an annually diminishing tax rate incentive for the first four years (8, 6, 4, and 2 cents) and retaining access to hold harmless protections, which is a state protection that keeps a school’s funding from dropping more than 3.5% due to a drop in enrollment. Hold harmless is often referred to as “phantom students,” as it essentially allows a school to access per-pupil funding for nonexistent students.
“With the tax rate incentives and the hold harmless at 3.5%,” said Sumner, “right now we have no phantoms and we’ve been going up, but the safety net there is that if Halifax went down 10 and the others went up, it’s a wash. So even though for our school we would get 10 fewer education grants coming in, the unified district would get the same amount, so you have a little security in numbers.”
Sanborn said that historically, Vermont has worked incentives into pushes for mergers. “When we get to Act 46, there are incentives for merger,” said Sanborn. “But if you don’t, there are penalties. So, that’s the real change now. That’s what’s different with Act 46. As a community, if you don’t do something, there are penalties.”
The word “penalty” has been debated in recent months, with the state framing the ability to keep a small school grant and hold harmless protections as an incentive, rather than the loss thereof as a penalty. Regardless, should the merger fail for Halifax, the loss of the small school grant could be detrimental.
“It would be very difficult for a small school, say a school of 400 students or fewer, to keep its doors open without small school grants,” said Pratt. “Those are the realities there.”
Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford are proposing a merger in a “side-by-side” model with Wilmington and Whitingham, which would effectively turn the six individual districts in the current Windham Southwest Supervisory Union into three: Southern Valley Unified Union School District (Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford); Twin Valley School District (Whitingham and Wilmington); and Searsburg, which is a non-operating district.
“We want to do everything we can to protect our small supervisory union,” said Pratt “For us, looking at the big picture, we want to bring something to the voters that will be voted in. It’s not just Halifax we’re looking at. We’re talking about five towns in order to be a side-by-side. At least four of them have to vote for this or it doesn’t happen. If Halifax and Readsboro decide not to have it happen, it doesn’t work.”
Schools need to vote in the affirmative for a merger by July 1 to qualify for the incentives outlined in Act 46. If they do not, the state intends to evaluate all non-merged districts in the fall and make their own mergers. “If it doesn’t get passed and we can’t accomplish a side-by-side, the state is going to tell us what to do, only they’re going to tell us what to do and we’re not going to get incentives,” said Pratt. “They’re going to take the incentives and turn them on us and use them as penalties. And that’s the scary part.”
Pratt said he’s not confident that the state will consider geography in their own consolidations. “They could say Stamford and Readsboro, you’re now part of Bennington, and the rest, you’re part of Windham Central and Windham Southeast. That’s a worst case scenario, but we don’t know what the state’s going to do. It’s going to be totally up to them,” said Pratt.
“This is your opportunity — and you may not see it as the best option — but it may be the best option of you controlling a little bit of your destiny,” said Sanborn.
The study committee for the schools needs to send its articles of agreement for the merger to the Agency of Education by the end of February. If the AOE approves the plan, the committee will go to the state board of education in March, where the articles of agreement will either be approved or disapproved. If approved by the state, the merger will go to vote in each town on May 9.
The study committee is holding public meetings in each town in the coming weeks: Tuesday, February 7, at 7 pm at Twin Valley Elementary School; Thursday, February 9, at 6:30 pm at Stamford Elementary School; and Monday, February 13, at 6:30 pm at Readsboro Central School. All meetings are open to the public and residents from each town are encouraged to attend meetings in their own town as well as the other towns.