The subject of the the hearing was S.15, a bill that would change some requirements and deadlines under Act 46. According to Senate Education Committee Chair Philip Baruth, although there have been some early successes of Act 46, “some communities are not finding success. We’ve set out to find out why communities might be having particular difficulty, and whether there’s any adjustments we can make in this session without overturning the principals of Act 46 or what other communities have already done.”
Baruth said the committee has met with supervisory unions and Act 46 committees in several communities, and each session has yielded several ideas that the committee plans to consider for inclusion in the bill.
Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Board Chair Rich Werner said he supported a proposed extension of the deadlines for compliance with Act 46, but only under certain circumstances. “If there are extensions, we’d ask that they be conditional. If people have worked hard (to comply with the law) and the vote fails, then an extension to work on something else or have a revote is appropriate.”
Joe Winrich, chair of the supervisory union’s Act 46 committee, agreed. But he also asked for greater clarity of criteria from the state. “There are various contingents that are assuring people they won’t lose their small schools grant, or this won’t happen, or we’ll get an alternative structure, we can continue operating as we always have. There’s enough vagueness in the law to allow people to (make the claims).”
Baruth agreed that the phrase “alternative structure,” meaning a school governance structure that’s not defined under Acts 46, 155, or 156, has confused the process. “The phrase has come to mean all things to all people,” he said. People think anything might fit into an alternative structure. But, yes, the state board of education should be clearer about what will fit and what won’t.”
Later in the meeting, Baruth also noted that a district determined to be “geographically isolated” might be allowed greater flexibility to comply with Act 46, but would not be exempt from joining with other school districts.
WCSU Superintendent Bill Anton noted that the supervisory union was made up of a number of districts that found it difficult to find partners to merge with because of geographic or structural differences. Werner said WCSU already does a lot of what Act 46 is intended to do. “We share a lot of resources as a supervisory union,” he said. “We already have shared music, art, and gym teachers. So there weren’t a whole lot of savings we could show.”
Chum Sumner, chair of Windham Southwest Supervisory Union’s Board and its Act 46 committee, said WSSU is now pursuing a “3-2-1” strategy. Initially, he said, WSSU was focused on a “side-by-side,” a structure in which Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford would create a single district, and Whitingham and Wilmington would morph their joint contract district into a unified union district. The proposal left Searsburg, WSSU’s only non-operating district, out in the cold. The new “3-2-1” strategy is similar, but would allow Searsburg to remain a member, while maintaining their school choice options in all grades.
Baruth said he hadn’t heard of a “3-2-1” structure before, but Sumner said his committee’s Act 46 consultant, Steve Sanborn, reported that a similar proposal had been approved by the state recently. “Well, there’s a lot we don’t know about what happens at the (state board of education) level,” Baruth joked. “We’ve been talking about a side-by-side as two districts, but if a “3-2-1” model has been done before, there are a couple of communities that might be interested.”
Sumner also said WSSU was a small supervisory union, with limited options under Act 46, and a lot to lose if their proposed structure doesn’t pass muster with voters or the state. “We need the incentives,” he said. “Our schools can’t afford to lose the ‘hold-harmless’ (which stabilizes the loss of equalized pupils) or the small schools grant. It would be devastating.”
But he also said it was unlikely there would be any savings from the mergers. “We’re pretty spread out. We can’t find where we’ll be sharing much. The roads between the schools are not safe for daily travel, and having teachers go back and forth between schools cuts into instruction time.”
“There are no direct routes between the schools,” affirmed committee vice chair Sen. Becca Balint, of Brattleboro.
WSSU Superintendent Chris Pratt said the supervisory union was already sharing staff where possible – listing school nursing staff as well as music, art, and other teachers. “The proposal we’ll be submitting looks close to what we’re doing now,” he said.
In regard to the Twin Valley part of the side-by-side, there would be virtually no change, according to Pratt, and Twin Valley Board and Act 46 committee member John Doty warned that any savings from consolidation has already been realized for the two towns. Now, he said, Wilmington and Whitingham are looking at tax increases. He read a letter from Twin Valley School Board Vice Chair Kathy Larsen in which she compared the two towns’ efforts to create a joint district to the requirements of Act 46. She said the two towns have done “everything Act 46 is now requiring us to do but it has not lowered our property taxes. Instead, it has increased them. This year, although we are $750,000 below last year’s budget, the tax rate has increased 41 cents in one town and 22 cents in the other.”
Larsen said the situation was likely to encourage local voters to turn down proposals for further consolidation, particularly when tax increases are outstripping the state’s incentive of a temporary 8-cent decrease in the tax rate for early compliance with the law. “We want to be law-abiding but the frustrations are mounting because the solutions the state has offered are not helping us. An 8-cent incentive is virtually meaningless when considered against a 52-cent increase.”
Larsen said that, although a unified district could lead to more educational opportunities and better outcomes for students, it would not make education more affordable, as Twin Valley’s experience indicates. She called on the committee to “acknowledge that we are an example that the law is not working as intended. Act 46 either needs to be made more flexible or the whole state aid formula needs to be revised.”
Baruth suggested that one of the goals of Act 46, the creation of larger districts, would help cushion the impact of declining enrollment.
“That’s one of the ideas behind larger districts,” Baruth said.
“We’ve already done that,” Doty said.
Baruth persisted, saying that bringing districts up to 900 or 1,000 students, as “preferred” under Act 46, would be beneficial.
“We’d love to,” said Doty. “Where are they? The ideal is good, but even before Twin Valley there were discussions with Bennington and Brattleboro. They couldn’t take our students, and even if they could, I don’t know if we’d want students to travel that far. But we feel like we’ve already anticipated Act 46, and we’ve done it.”
“Act 46 is not providing you any additional benefits, because you’ve already realized the benefits,” summed up Balint.
In additional testimony, Randy Capitani, publisher of The Deerfield Valley News and a member of the WCSU Act 46 Committee from Dover, suggested the Legislature look at Twin Valley as an example of what other merged districts will look like in the future.
“The points John (Doty) brought up are real,” he said. “You can use Twin Valley as a precurser of what could happen to other merged districts. The feeling is that we are being punished because we did this before it was mandated. Really look at how the penalties are hurting them. They’re being penalized, and as a taxpayer I am being penalized for two towns who did it right 12 years ago. They’ve done everything the Legislature has asked the rest of the state to do now, and they’re facing serious cuts and tax increases, with more down the road.”