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Column: School merger war leaves wounds



For the Valley News
Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The “Peacham carve-out” in the state’s budget (it’s Sec. E. 505 of the 117-page bill) is a telling insight on the wind-down of the state’s effort to consolidate Vermont’s schools. The town name “Peacham” is nowhere to be found in what legislators term “the Big Bill,” but the carve-out is all about Peacham and what happened there.

Peacham operates what is, numerically, a small school. That smallness has qualified it in the past for what’s called a “small schools grant.” However, as a non-merger district (Peacham is part of what’s called an “approved Act 49 3/1 plan” with neighboring districts), Peacham and other unmerged or non-voluntary merged districts no longer receive grants based solely on their school’s pupil count. They must now apply for the grants every year, and qualification is based not just on size but on a series of “metrics” established by the state Board of Education. (Schools that received small schools grants and agreed to a merger will continue to receive the grants automatically, in perpetuity — a “merger incentive grant” whose constitutionality is being questioned.)

Peacham applied for a grant (expected to be about $90,000) for next year — and was denied. School officials learned they had missed the numerical cut-off for grant eligibility by a fraction of a point. They were told their score dropped due to “inefficiency” (which is based largely on a school’s student-to-staff ratio). But that seemed odd — Peacham hadn’t added a teacher or other general instructional staff.

What had happened is that Peacham in 2018 had accepted, through their regional school choice program, a special needs student who needed a one-on-one aide. The addition of that one aide to the school staff roster tipped Peacham into an “inefficient rating,” and that rating lowered Peacham’s score just enough to keep it from getting a small schools grant. This was despite the fact that Peacham didn’t employ the aide (the sending school did) or receive state funds for the student.

Complaints were made to local legislators. One of Peacham’s legislators is Sen. Jane Kitchel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Another is Rep. Kitty Toll, chair of the House Appropriations Committee (and Kitchel’s sister). During the closing days of the legislative session, a carve-out regarding the awarding of small schools grants, prior mathematical determination notwithstanding, appeared in the must-pass state budget bill. The bill, with the carve-out, whisked through.

The next week, in Superior Court in St. Albans during a hearing on whether the state’s school merger law caused inequity in the awarding of small schools grants and was therefore unconstitutional, a lawyer for the state Attorney General’s Office cited the just-passed bill to argue the grant system wasn’t unconstitutional. If a school district feels aggrieved after applying for and not receiving a grant, the state’s lawyer said, there is a proper remedy short of a constitutional challenge that districts can and should use: Contact your legislator.

There was a rustle in the courtroom. The rationale was pretty far out there as a basis for denying a constitutional claim concerning equity for schoolchildren.

Going forward, it’s doubtful that the route to getting this sort of remedy will be available to all on an equal, efficacious basis. This is not to criticize Kitchel and Toll for their actions; on the contrary, they did what other legislators declined to do throughout the past session. They listened to constituents’ concerns about the merger law, and they came up with a fix that will help not just Peacham but any other school in a similar situation. But to think such an equity “fix” can be cobbled together and passed into law whenever needed is a pipedream.

The hammer of the school merger law comes down on July 1. Court proceedings still offer the possibility that parts of Act 46 will be overturned. But a huge amount of needless damage has already been done. This may not be evident in towns and cities where mergers — some of convenience, some for the financial incentives and some because consolidation really did make sense — have occurred. But why this war couldn’t have ended with far less damage done to other communities, many of them rural and many of them poor, is difficult to understand. Public officials’ final actions in thrusting the law’s demands through every community have seemed inexplicably harsh.

Allen Gilbert was chairman of the Worcester, Vt., School Board in 1995 when it joined the Brigham, Vt., school funding lawsuit that resulted in Act 60. He also chaired his supervisory union’s board, served as president of the Vermont School Boards Association, served on his regional high school board, and is serving again on the Worcester board. This commentary originally appeared on VtDigger.