Defeat of the merger proposal catapults Dover into the challenge of figuring out what to do with regard to Act 46, legislation that requires towns to merge districts in an effort to consolidate school governance structures. Failure to comply with the law will mean a loss of major funding sources for the school, mainly its small school grant, which is currently $61,111.
During the school portion of Dover’s Town Meeting, discussion of Act 46 dominated, culminating in a two-hour discussion that took up the entire pre-lunch portion of the meeting. Since the merger was voted by Australian ballot, outcomes were discussed as hypotheticals. Christine Levy asked whether the school board had a contingency plan in the instance of a “no” vote.
“If you vote no, the board is not going to do anything until Monday night,” said school board chair Rich Werner. “On Monday night,Windham Central Supervisory Union is going to meet with all of the boards to see how this all played out. We’re going to get together to come up with a plan on whether we should do something as a supervisory union or if we should all do our own thing. After that, the (Dover School) board will meet and decide where we should go from there. That will all happen at public meetings, so you will have input at that time.”
The most often discussed contingency plan in many towns has been striving for “alternative structure” status with the state. Alternative structure designation allows a school to maintain the protections of complying with Act 46 without adhering to the merger requirements outlined in the law. However, actual definitions on what would or would not qualify as alternative structure have been murky due to a lack of clarity from the state.
Though there’s a lack of clarity on how exactly to achieve it, alternative structure status has been regarded by many as a means of maintaining the small school grant without merging. However, at Town Meeting, Rep. Laura Sibilia and Sen. Rebecca Balint’s responses to a question from Dover resident Tripp Morse painted a potentially different picture.
“If we vote this down, and we put together an alternative structure and it’s approved, do we lose the small school grant?” asked Morse.
“So,” said Sibilia, pausing for a beat. “Maybe.”
The room broke out into nervous laughter, and Morse whistled in surprise.
“Things are in flux, Tripp,” said Sibilia. “They’re in flux.”
“It’s possible,” said Balint of the possible loss of the grant despite alternative structure status. “And that’s not a great answer for you, but it could go either way. We are looking at how to support small schools and it could be that the way we do that is by continuing some kind of grant. It has certainly been talked about by my committee on the Senate side. I think we need to get some information after this Town Meeting.”
Sibilia said that in her legislative work, she has asked the state to consider rural weighting, allowing rural students to be counted more than once in pupil enrollment numbers for education finance purposes, which could work to mitigate growing tax rates in rural Vermont towns due to declining student enrollments. “Your tax rates are very largely dependent on both your budget and the number of students,” said Sibilia.
“The small schools grant was part of making Act 60 work for small communities,” said Sibilia. “And I would say that it wasn’t enough. So rural weighting, which we’re trying to get after, would potentially do the same thing. But I would be stunned if we got (rural weighting) this year. I will guarantee you that if Dover is approved for an alternative structure I will fight like heck to continue making sure we get rural financial support either through the small schools grant or through rural weighting.”
Selectboard chair Randall Terk asked Sibilia and Balint whether a number of “no” votes on mergers may send a message to the state. “Do you think that will provide incentive or the motivation for the state to look at other measures?”
“We are not repealing Act 46,” said Sibilia. “I can just about guarantee. I think there is an understanding that we always knew that we would need to make some adjustments. There has been real hesitancy to do that prior to votes that are happening now on Town Meeting day, because we didn’t want to discourage people from voting in favor of the work that has been done. I think we’ll see what’s happened. The agency is very engaged. The committees are very engaged. I think we will see some changes. We know that nothing’s nothing until the fall of the gavel at the end of session. I think we will probably see some qualified extensions for places that have worked.”
“I agree. I don’t think there’s any appetite for repeal,” said Balint. “But we need to make it work for rural communities, and that’s the challenge moving forward. We are constantly staring at a map in my committee room and asking where are points of conflict, and how do we help those communities? I’m not interesting in tearing communities apart. I’m interested in incremental movement to try to get people the kind of support they need so their schools can survive.”
Werner, whom Sibilia commended for his leadership throughout the Act 46 process, urged residents to have confidence in the board regardless of the outcome of the merger vote.
“Don’t be scared,” said Werner. “Know that if you vote no, this board is going to work very hard to do whatever we need to do to protect you. We’ve protected the voters, the students, and our school very well. We’ll do whatever we need to do. We’re going to be there to protect you. We’ll do whatever we can for you folks.”
As it enters this new phase of its Act 46 journey, the Dover School Board has a new member. Kerry McDonald-Cady was elected as a write-in, replacing Chip Vicary, who previously held the board’s two-year seat.
Per Werner’s comments at Town Meeting, the next steps will initially be discussed at the WCSU Board’s meeting on Monday, March 13, at 7 pm at Leland & Gray High School. The Dover School Board’s next regular meeting is Monday, March 20, at 6 pm at the Dover School. Both meetings are open to the public.