Upper Valley Educators Under Pressure as Act 46 Deadline Nears

  • David Baker

  • Wayne Gersen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/1/2016 11:28:42 PM
Modified: 10/1/2016 11:28:34 PM

Windsor — For many Upper Valley school districts, educators are working under mounting pressure to completely rethink their leadership structures before the clock runs out on a state-imposed July 2017 deadline for voter approval.

Though Vermont is still in the early phases of perhaps the most dramatic legislatively mandated transition to hit schools in decades, a clearer picture is emerging about what education will look like when the dust clears.

But as that picture comes into focus and prospective merger partners begin to draft articles of agreement with each other, local educators are scrambling to address a whole host of issues, including the composition of school boards, the loss of local control and property transfers. 

Last year’s Act 46 pushes school districts to lump their administrative structures into units of at least 900 students each, with the new entities run by a single budget overseen by a single school board. When districts present their plans to voters in spring, they tout the economy of scale that allows big districts to have expanded educational opportunities for students, at a lower per-pupil cost.

It’s a laudable statewide goal, but in some local districts, like those that make up the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, the law has pushed them to consider a previously unthinkable option they fear will hurt, not help, their 1,200 students: giving up school choice in West Windsor, Hartland and Weathersfield and sending all of those towns’ students to Windsor High School.

That’s unwelcome news to Mill Moore, a Hartland resident who also happens to be the executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

To him, a person who has championed a school choice tradition that helps independent schools across the state to thrive, the prospect of losing school choice in his own backyard is particularly galling.

“As a Hartland voter, I’ve always felt school choice was an asset, a tremendous asset,” he said. “This comes up every seven or eight years and Hartland voters have always said we absolutely want this to continue to be a choice district.”

More than 100 families in the three towns take advantage of choice each year to send their students to not only Windsor High, but Sharon Academy, Springfield High School, Woodstock Union High School, Kimball Union Academy in Plainfield, Lebanon High School, Hanover High School, Hartford High School and Thetford Academy.

Moore argues that school choice boosts everything from educational quality to property values. “School choice is a good thing for a variety of reasons,” he said. “It’s good for kids because it gives them options. It’s good for schools because it forces them to think about the kids.”

But Peter Clarke, an educational consultant who was hired last month to help the four towns to comply with Act 46, described study committee members exploring the option as demonstrating “intellectual courage.”

“There’s certain things in our political life that are sort of a ‘third rail,’ that no one wants to touch,” Clarke said. “But if you don’t look at them squarely, how do you arrive at a thoughtful decision?”

Because Windsor operates a high school, the town cannot offer universal school choice to its students.

But Vermont law requires that all students within a district have equal access to certain educational features, including school choice, meaning that if the towns want to merge into a single state-approved district and keep Windsor High open, choice would have to be sacrificed across the board.

“They’re not going to assume that the status quo is the best thing. It may be or it may not be,” Clarke said.

Getting to a place where they could consider giving up school choice, an option that is sure to be emphatically challenged by Moore and other constituents, did not come easily to the study committee, which is made up of school board members.

Windsor Southeast’s four towns knew from the moment Act 46 became law in 2015 that it made sense for their districts to stick together. After all, they had already spent years sharing resources and aligning the curriculum of their classrooms, and educators initially hoped to build on this momentum to take advantage of cash incentives the state was offering to districts that presented a voter-approved “accelerated merger” plan to the state by July 2016.

Over the course of the last 14 months, that optimistic goal has died amid anguish, largely because a series of communications with the state led to the slowly dawning realization that there may be no way around the choice issue.

“I think Windsor Southeast is in a difficult position because the options in front of them don’t easily fit into the preferred options outlined by the law,” Clarke said.

Windsor Southeast Superintendent David Baker said that, after more than a year of trying to weigh dozens of intangible plans, it was time to get more serious by hiring Clarke, who had successfully gotten other districts around the state to the voting stage.

“We needed to get from our six options down to a couple that were manageable,” Baker said. “That’s what we need to do.”

Giving up choice is one unpalatable option. A second is to close down Windsor High School, so that Windsor could adopt choice, possibly opening the door to a partnership with other operating districts in the region.

Windsor Southeast does have a third option — it could appeal to the State Board of Education to approve its existing configuration as a so-called alternative structure, by making the argument that this would be the best way to meet a set of goals listed in Act 46.

But it’s a frightening course to pursue, because, if the State Board of Education does not agree with local educators, it can, in 2018, draft its own plan for the school districts, which could include peeling them off and merging them into other school districts, like Hartford or Springfield.

Faced with those unappealing prospects, Clarke said committee members have asked him to more fully flesh out the specter of a unified, no-choice district.

“My job is to help them meet the requirements of the law while allowing them to arrive at a decision that they feel is in the best interests of the student they serve,” he said. Based on his experience elsewhere in the state, he is taking up the job with few expectations “other than knowing that the change is difficult, and that expectation has been fulfilled.”

Moore said Windsor Southeast is not alone. “That certainly goes for another 85-plus districts around Vermont that are hanging tough and saying, ‘We do not want to give up choice’,” he said, followed by a grim prediction about what will happen when the approved merger deadline passes and the State Board of Education takes up the task of wrangling any school districts that have not found a solution to the problems that Act 46 poses.

“Somebody will probably end up in court,” Moore said. “Lord knows who or where, but this is serious stuff.”

Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, who sits on the House Committee on Education, said he plans to take up the issue of school choice once the new session begins, if he is re-elected. “How we might have addressed that, I can’t really say because the jury’s still out on what would be the best way to deal with it,” Christie said. “There are still a lot of factors involved around the state.”

Sticky Wickets in Bradford

Other school districts in the Upper Valley aren’t faced with the choice issue, but, as they get into the nitty gritty of drafting articles of agreement, they are finding plenty of other potential landmines that have to be navigated.

Sometimes there are quirky local circumstances that Act 46 couldn’t possibly have anticipated, as in the case of a hoped-for merger between the administrative structures of four school districts in the two Vermont towns of Bradford and Newbury, including Oxbow High and Blue Mountain Union.

It’s a fairly natural pairing involving entities in just two communities, but even that has hit snags, according to Wayne Gersen, the retired superintendent of SAU 70 in Hanover and Norwich. For the past five years, Gersen has worked as an educational consultant, and has been hired to guide Bradford and Newbury through some of the thorny issues that have emerged. 

One problem is land owned by the school districts.

“The Bradford School District owns the town forest and the Bradford municipal offices,” he said. “The Newbury Elementary school district owns the town common.”

And Gersen said residents in both communities expressed “lively” reservations about the idea of a mixed-composition board controlling those community resources.

It’s the type of problem that can be worked through, but it takes time, and the timing gets more difficult because, Gersen said, “once you get into some of these issues you find the ownership details can get cloudy.”

That’s not the only obstacle for the Bradford-Newbury group to work through before they can present a vetted plan to voters.

Other decisions that have to be made include naming the new district; choosing whether future budgets should be decided by town-wide Australian ballot voting or a show of hands at a floor meeting; and figuring out how to reconcile differences between class sizes, teacher salaries and health insurance.

And for each component of the discussion, school board members are eager to engage in the often time-consuming process of soliciting public input, in part because an unforeseen political landmine could make it more difficult to get voter approval before the July deadline.

The study committee is holding public meetings, with the next one scheduled for Oct. 12 at Blue Mountain Union High School. “It’s not going to happen in the dark of night and it’s not going to happen quickly,” Gersen said.

Then there’s the biggest sticking point of all — a merging of school boards unavoidably means that individual towns lose some portion of control over the schools that operate within their borders. “The sticky wicket everyplace is, ‘What is the composition of the new board going to be?’ ” Gersen said.

Decisions to be made on that front include whether members should be apportioned by township, or by population; and how large a multi-town school board can be before it gets so unwieldy that it becomes inefficient.

Despite all these hurdles, Gersen said the mood has been upbeat, and members are putting in the hours to ensure that good decisions are being made.

“I know that some of the committee members may not believe it, but I think we made good progress and are set to complete the project in a reasonable timeframe,” he said.

Time Pressures in Bethel

For a study committee brokering a merger between the school districts of Rochester, Bethel, Royalton and Chelsea, a consensus on what a new 1,000-student district might look like is starting to emerge, according to Todd Sears, a Bethel School Board member who sits on the committee.

“So far I’m feeling pretty good,” he said. “I wouldn’t say there’s unanimity, but we all feel a strong sense that we’re rolling in the right direction and we’re going to get to the destination.”

Right now, each of the four districts teaches kids from K-12, and operates its own high school.

The committee hasn’t yet taken a formal vote, Sears said, but there seems to be general agreement that the towns should maintain elementary schools in each of the four communities, but consolidate their older students into a single high school.

He said they’re still sussing out whether one or two middle schools would be best.

The new district would remain part of the 10-town White River Valley Supervisory Union, which includes Granville, Hancock, Sharon, Stockbridge, Strafford and Tunbridge. With locations not yet firmed up, the committee hasn’t yet turned its attention to some of the details that have bogged down other communities.

“We haven’t gotten into the nitty gritty in terms of property transfers or articles of agreement,” said Lisa Floyd, vice chairwoman of the Bethel School Board and the chairwoman of the study committee. “We’re just not there yet.”

Floyd said that, because of the complexity of the decisions at hand, she’s feeling the pressure as the weeks bleed by.

“I think time is the biggest challenge from my point of view,” she said.

For example, she talked about the discussion surrounding the number and placement of middle schools.

“We need to collect data, first of all,” she said. “We need to collect data on our buildings. Collect data on busing. We also have to do some research on what the makeup of each of those middle schools is” to make sure that the 200 middle-school-aged children wouldn’t be distributed in a way “that is really lopsided.”

“We’re talking about all sort of different things,” Sears said. “Maybe we refurbish Royalton to be the central high school, and the middle school could be Bethel or Chelsea.”

Sears said that worries among board members about the loss of local control have been overshadowed by larger concerns about the demographic trends that caused Act 46 to be passed in the first place — shrinking student populations that have made it increasingly difficult for districts to provide a decent education to their students.

As in Bradford and Newbury, Floyd said the need for public input is both critical, and time consuming.

“Our goal is to ensure that the public hears about what we’re doing, so that when we get to a vote in early April we can be confident that voters know what they’re voting on, and so nobody feels like they’ve been surprised.”

Sears said the public has not been very vocal about the change to date, which is one reason the study committee is trying to engage people with informational meetings scheduled for Oct. 6 in Chelsea, Oct. 14 in Royalton and Oct. 18 in Rochester, all from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

The concerns that he has heard from the community, he said, have been diametrically opposed.

“Are tax rates going to go up or down? There are a lot of concerns about that,” he said. “On the other hand … in the educators’ mind, there is some anxiety out there about jobs. … As we get to consolidated buildings, it may result in staff reduction at some level.”

Overall, Sears said, he has mixed feelings about the law. On the one hand, he said, it offends him as a self-described “small government, less intrusive kind of guy.”

On the other hand, he said, he’s starting to buy into the idea that the final outcome will be good for the students under his care.

“I wish that Act 46 never had to come into being,” he said. “I wish that locally, we had come up with this idea by ourselves. Because it make sense. … In this case, it was a nudge, and a nudge that we needed.”

Another Legislative Fix Possible

Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said the timeline was not as big of an issue for neighboring districts with similar governance structures, but that the Upper Valley is characterized by more variety.

“I think deadlines are important because that’s when people come to the table and focus and get the work done,” she said. But at the same time, she said, “it’s important that, because these are difficult conversations and complex issues, you certainly don’t want to rush through them.”

Moore agreed. “We are at a turning point right now. All the easy mergers have been done,” he said. ‘The stuff that is coming forward now is coming more slowly and is far more difficult.”

Moore and Mace both said they expect further legislative action. Mace said she “fully anticipates” speaking with lawmakers during the upcoming session about amending the timeline in some way, though she said the association has not yet determined what would be ideal. 

“Act 46 did not give enough flexibility for towns to adapt to this new environment,” Moore said. “We’re waiting for the Legislature to have a second look.”  

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.
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