In Act 46, several tax incentives were offered for merging school governance structures, including retention of a school’s small school grant through conversion thereof to a merger grant. School districts that have not merged will lose the small school grant, but, per Act 49, may retain it if they meet one of two criteria beyond small class size: geographic isolation or academic excellence.
“Beginning in 2019, districts are going to have to apply annually for small school grants and demonstrate their eligibility,” said Donna Russo-Savage, of the agency of education. “And this isn’t saying that a school must close or must merge. This is saying that the state is not going to give additional money to support it. Though that may end up being the same thing.”
Russo-Savage explained that the state board of education was tasked with creating a list of schools that would potentially qualify for geographic isolation before it is required to define the metrics with which qualification will be defined.
“By September 30 of this year you are required to publish a list of districts that you’ve determined to be geographically isolated in connection with small schools,” said Russo-Savage. “By July 1 (2018), you’re required to publish a document of the metrics you’ve determined, and then, beginning on July 1, 2019, the eligibility for small school grants will begin to be determined by eligibility for geographic isolation (or academic excellence).”
Russo-Savage said that given the need to produce a list of isolated schools before determining the criteria that will ultimately inform that list, she recommended that the board come up with a metric that would give a general indication of the decisions the board will make in the future with more nuance, such as whether seasonal road conditions could play a role in isolation.
To guide the board, Brad James, of the agency of education, presented research that showed schools that currently receive a small schools grant and how far those schools are from the closest school nearby, with a focus on the time spent traveling from school to school. James also presented information pertaining to how long students in non-operating districts are currently traveling.
Douglas Korb, chair of the Marlboro School Board, asked if the board would hear public comments before voting. Later in the same meeting, the Marlboro School Board asked the state board to allow them to adopt a 2-2-1 structure in fulfillment of Act 46. The board approved the structure, and it will now go to Marlboro’s voters. Under that structure, Marlboro’s governance structure would be unmerged, but the school district would exist “side by side” in the Windham Central Supervisory Union with the River Valleys Unified School District and the West River Modified Union Education District.
Despite the 2-2-1 structure being a pathway for Act 46 compliance defined in Act 49, because Marlboro’s governance structure would be unmerged, it will have to apply each year for its small school grant and will therefore rely on the results of how geographic isolation is defined.
The board agreed to hear Korb’s comments. “The timing is between school to school, but my thought always goes to the individual,” said Korb. “If (the loss of a small school grant) inevitably creates pressure on a town to not pass a budget (and a school closes), you are still going to have to pick all those children up. And in geographically isolated areas where there are inhospitable routes, you’re going to spend one to two hours picking up children.”
The board voted to adopt a preliminary metric of a school that is located at least a 15-minute distance from the nearest school being geographically isolated. Marlboro would fit this definition. According to information distributed by James at the meeting, Marlboro is 19 minutes from the closest school district, Brattleboro.
Several members of the board reiterated that the definition can and will change in the future as the board more thoroughly explores the metrics for which it will define geographic isolation. Later in the meeting, when the board of education was reviewing Marlboro’s bid for its 2-2-1 Act 46 structure, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said Marlboro would be “skating on very thin ice” should they see anything the board determined that day about geographic isolation as certain.
“We understand that anything can change in the future,” said Korb.