The bill, as many know, was designed to encourage consolidation among school districts in Vermont. The bill was built on the twin towers of cost saving and increased educational opportunity. Implicit in that bill was the idea that larger districts were better off than smaller ones. The thinking was that by consolidating districts, efficiencies would be found that would keep school costs in check. Those efficiencies, in theory, could also improve educational opportunity for students by offering more diverse options to a larger student population and by allowing expanded districts to move resources around as needed.
So, here we are, 16 months after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill that became Act 46, and news has just come down that the first articles of agreement sent to the state from a group of Deerfield Valley towns have been sent back from the Vermont Agency of Education for a significant overhaul (see story on page 1).
The five towns that operate schools in the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union have been working on a “side-by-side” consolidation that would merge like-minded districts. Halifax, Readsboro and Stamford operate kindergarten through eighth grade schools and would merge into one district, while the K-12 Twin Valley collaboration between Wilmington and Whitingham would continue under a more unified consolidation.
In rejecting the articles, AOE commissioner Rebecca Holcombe said she couldn’t recommend the articles to the state Board of Education because that the districts couldn’t show improved educational opportunities for students in the consolidated districts, along with other deficiencies.
There may truth in many of those things, but it appears on the surface that what we have here is a failure to communicate, to borrow a famous line. It’s clear that the WSSU couldn’t communicate its goals to the AOE and BOE, and it’s clear that the state agencies couldn’t communicate the essential steps necessary for approval to the WSSU committees working on the articles.
No doubt the response from the state has been disappointing to the school officials, board members, and community volunteers who labored long and hard to develop those articles. Many long hours and meetings have gone into the development of the articles, and we sense those who put in those long hours are extremely frustrated right now.
We don’t know where things will go from here. We assume that once the shock wears off, the districts will regroup and try to develop goals that will meet the AOE’s requirements. While not going back to square one, there are a number of items that need to be addressed, and no doubt will require quite a bit of work to resolve. How long that takes remains to be seen, but it will seriously impact the timeline for state approval, which will then impact the timeline to present the articles to the electorate for an up or down vote. The idea of a vote at Town Meeting in March, while certainly not ruled out, seems much more of a remote possibility than it did just a week ago.
We said early on in the development of Act 46 that school districts would be put to the test trying to implement the new law. We’re finding out now just how difficult the task has become, especially here in southern Vermont. It’s interesting that no articles of agreement from this region have been approved and sent to voters, which points out some of the difficulties a one-size-fits-all piece of legislation like Act 46 creates.
That difficulty also creates uncertainty for school staff, parents, students, and taxpayers. The uncertainty of what will happen to the school districts of Readsboro, Stamford, and Halifax will continue for the foreseeable future. Nobody likes uncertainty, especially when it comes to schools and their students.