Under Act 46, the school governance consolidation law, towns that do not voluntarily merge governance structures do not have access to tax incentives that are built into the legislation, including retention of a school’s small schools grant and access to hold harmless protections.
“Speaking for the Act 46 committee,” said King, “we were really looking for a way to preserve our school -- in our town and in all of our towns. The state is putting us at risk by threatening to take away our small schools grants (and hold harmless protections). This is the way we can move forward and keep our school intact. It’s up to you to vote for this, but this is what we think is the best way forward. And to vote yes would be to vote in favor of that.”
Act 46 asks towns to merge governance structures for schools with the same operating structure. In Readsboro, the proposed merger would mean a shared school board, school district budget, and base school tax rate for Readsboro, Stamford, and Halifax, which all operate K-8 schools and have high school choice.
“The only thing that would change the school tax rate is the common level of appraisal in each town,” said Steve Sanborn, who consulted with the towns on forming their articles of agreement for the proposed merger and who led Monday’s meeting. “Think of these three communities as a single community, with one budget and from that budget, one school tax rate. That rate is only influenced in each community by the CLA.”
Readsboro resident Nick Zammuto said he has concerns about what the legislation could mean in the future for school choice. “It seems like a pathway to potentially changing school choice,” said Zammuto.
Sanborn said Act 46 does not threaten school choice for grades a town does not operate a school for. “They cannot change you and assign you to another town and take away school choice,” said Sanborn. “You will not lose high school choice in this process.”
However, Sanborn explained, if the merger goes through and the new unified school board decides to close one of the schools, students would have to continue to go to school within the new unified district. In other words, if Readsboro closed its school, its students would have to go to Halifax or Stamford until grade eight.
Zammuto said that when Act 46 first emerged, he did cost, enrollment, and tax projections for the three towns. “The thing that really sticks with me from all of those calculations is that the new board could say, ‘We have 200 kids in the three schools when we could have 200 kids in two schools and save a huge amount of money,’” said Zammuto. “That financial pressure to close a school is going to be there all the time. I really want to get a sense of what the situation would be like, if the board wanted to close the school, or the town wants to close the school, for financial reasons.”
Sanborn said a “safety valve” for that scenario was worked into the articles of agreement, in the form of a stipulation that the school in a town cannot be closed without a positive vote from the voters of the town the school is located in.
Readsboro resident Larry Hopkins said he worried that the language of the articles of agreement may be breeding false hope about the opportunities the merger could create. “With all due respect, there’re a lot of buzzwords in here that are never going to happen,” said Hopkins. “Band, chorus. They’re never going to see any of that. This makes it sound a lot better than it’s going to be.”
“I think there is a possibility that if we combine districts, we could do some of that,” said King. “Over the months that I’ve worked on this, I’ve found that there could be a real advantage to combining boards and getting ideas from the other schools. We could share ideas and resources, and that’s one thing that I think the state is looking for.”
Sanborn said in terms of shared resources, schools within the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union, which Readsboro, Stamford, and Halifax are, already share a lot, including centralized transportation, union agreements, centralized special education, a centralized curriculum, centralized assessments, centralized professional development for staff, shared technology systems, a single accounting operation, and centralized food service management.
Stamford resident Helen Fields said the notion of the unified school board changing the school’s food service is of concern. “If you have a local person who is making nutritious food and the new board decides a state program would be more cost efficient, that’s a problem,” said Fields.
“I think everybody fears a little bit what this new school board will do,” said Sanborn. “But what I’ve found in other districts I’ve worked with is that the new school board is just the old school boards working together. I’ve worked for the last 47 years with school boards, and they look out for the best interests of the kids. I’ve never worked with a school board who didn’t want what’s best for kids. A little faith has to be put in that.”
Readsboro voters will have another opportunity to discuss the matter at a public informational meeting on Tuesday, May 23, at 7 pm, at Readsboro Elementary.
On the same night, Tuesday, May 23, informational meetings will be held at Halifax Elementary, Twin Valley Elementary, and Stamford Elementary. Halifax’s meeting will begin at 6:30 pm; Twin Valley’s and Stamford’s will begin at 7 pm. There will be an additional meeting at Twin Valley Middle High School on Thursday, May 25, at 7 pm.
Voting will happen in each town on May 31, from 10 am to 7 pm.