Under Act 46, districts who merge will be given a one-time $150,000 grant to cover the new district’s board’s ability to formulate policies and procedures for the unified district. Act 46 also offers tax incentives to towns that choose to merge, in the form of an annually diminishing 8-, 6-, 4-, and 2-cent reduction in the merged district’s education tax rate over the course of four years.
A town that chooses not to merge can request that the state grant it alternative structure status, meaning the school makes the case that it is unable to merge with other schools or holds a firm belief that its educational opportunities would be best served by remaining independent. If a school is not granted alternative structure status from the state, it is vulnerable to losing its small school grant and its hold harmless protections.
Regarding hold harmless protections, Rich Werner, chair of the WCSU Act 46 Study Committee and the Dover School Board, said that while phantom student funding doesn’t necessarily affect Dover, which had an increase of 10 students this year, or Marlboro, which has had steady enrollment for the past several years, it does affect Wardsboro.
“Wardsboro does have six phantom students,” said Werner. “With phantom students, the state said if you have a small number of students and you lose four or five students, that could be $30,000 to $50,000 in education aide from the state. That would be really tough for an administrator to all of a sudden have to cut $50,000. That’s a staff member. So, (phantom students) allow you to make sure you don’t go over a certain percentage of loss. So if we do vote for this, the hold harmless grant becomes another type of grant and it’s some money we will get to keep.”
The small school grant, which each of the three schools in the proposed merger currently depends on, would be transformed into a merger grant should the merger be voted in the affirmative. Currently, Wardsboro receives $83,595, Dover receives $61,111, and Marlboro receives $116,622. If the towns vote not to merge, they may lose their small school grants.
“There’s a lot of discussion on that,” said Werner. “Small school grants - (Montpelier) doesn’t like them, they want them to go away. Big schools like Burlington, Brattleboro, Rutland think we’re taking their money. That’s why they want us to see about having a larger district. Small school grants go away but become what’s called a merger grant for the foreseeable future.”
Answering a follow-up question about financial implications if the merger is not voted in the affirmative, Werner again referred to Wardsboro’s ability to keep its phantom student funding versus a vulnerability to lose it. “We’re seeing a declining enrollment in Vermont,” said Werner. “And that’s very true in Wardsboro. Six phantom students is a lot of students. If you were to lose 10 more students over the next five to 10 years, are our schools still sustainable? If Dover lost 10 students, if Marlboro lost 30 students, would we be sustainable? That’s one of the big questions.”
The articles of agreement for the proposed merger establish Wardsboro and Dover as necessary schools and Marlboro as advisable, meaning that if Marlboro votes not to merge, Wardsboro and Dover still can. Marlboro has been open about exploring the possibility of an alternative structure, since merging with Wardsboro and Dover would mean the closing of its junior high program.
If Wardsboro and Dover decide not to merge, it’s not certain they won’t still end up together. The state has plans to evaluate any schools that have not merged by July 2017 and to make its own mergers. “They could say, Dover and Wardsboro, you’re contiguous, you have the same structure, you’re K-six. We’re going to make you a district,” said Werner.
In a scenario where the merger is voted down by each town and subsequently the state merges Dover and Wardsboro anyway, both towns would still be vulnerable to tax penalties and the loss of their small school and hold harmless grants.
The WCSU Act 46 Study Committee will be holding three more informational meetings before the merger goes to vote at Town Meeting. All meetings are at 6:30 pm, with meetings scheduled for Thursday, February 2, at Wardsboro Town Hall; Monday, February 13, at Marlboro School; and Monday, February 27, at Dover Town Hall.