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Frustration grows over merged Vermont school districts

  • Seven seniors, Chelsea High School's final graduating class, march from the school to the village green for commencement in Chelsea, Vt., Friday, June 8, 2018. “The world is crying out for you, and the world has many needs,” senior class advisor Stephanie Joyce told the class during her address. “The world needs your honesty, the world needs your fairness, the world needs your integrity.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2020 10:20:22 PM
Modified: 3/14/2020 10:20:20 PM

Before rejecting their school district budget earlier this month, voters in the First Branch Unified District asked school board members to prepare a budget for a single K-8 school serving Chelsea and Tunbridge.

In Strafford, which also voted down its school budget, several community members advocated cutting ties with their supervisory union and operating an independent K-8 school.

The two districts, both part of the White River Valley Supervisory Union, share a similar problem: declining enrollments in small schools that did not merge as a result of the state’s Act 46 school consolidation law. But the two proposals represent opposite responses to steep budget increases and differing opinions about who or what’s to blame for those increases.

“There’s been a growing feeling of discontent post-merger,” said First Branch Unified District School Board member Nick Zigelbaum. “I think there was a feeling that with the merger, the towns would both save money. ... I think some people had an incorrect understanding of the consolidation plan.”

Under Act 46, the 10 districts in the White River Valley Supervisory Union made a variety of consolidation arrangements.

The merger of the Bethel and Royalton K-12 school districts into the White River Valley Unified School District represented the most comprehensive consolidation within the SU, creating a joint middle school and high school to serve the two towns, with elementary schools operating on each of the two campuses.

The Chelsea and Tunbridge school districts merged but retained their K-8 schools.

Strafford successfully secured an exemption from merging and continued on as a standalone district.

The responses to next year’s proposed budgets suggest that White River Valley districts are feeling the effects of their merger arrangements, and whether those arrangements can stave off the effects of continued declines in enrollment.

After contending with a 9% jump in equalized per-pupil spending in the current school year, the White River Valley Unified School District approved a budget for next year that bears a much more modest increase of 2.13% and eliminates two elementary teachers.

“We worked like crazy to hear the public and respond to the fact that we were going to try to contain costs,” Bruce Labs, superintendent of the White River Valley Supervisory Union, said in a recent phone interview. “We took everything we could out of the budget.”

But Bethel and Royalton voters may also have approved their budget more readily because they had a different view of the purpose of consolidating. In meetings leading up to the 2017 merger, community members from both towns crafted a plan that emphasized more opportunities for students, Labs said. Cost containment was one piece of the plan, but not the predominant one, he said.

Other districts within the SU are facing steeper increases this year. Like the White River Valley Unified District, the Strafford District and First Branch Unified District considered budgets with per-pupil spending hovering in the mid $18,000 range. But in Strafford, that represented a leap from $16,804 the year before and was attributable to a 9.34% budget increase. Strafford’s tax rate would have gone up about 15 cents per $100 of property value, or about $375 on a $250,000 house.

The budget controversy caps a rocky period for Strafford, which has a history of educating its students by its own rules. In 2012, the Vermont Legislature gave the town special dispensation to retain a designated school (Thetford Academy) for its high school students while also granting waivers for families to send their children elsewhere and pay the tuition balance, a privilege no other towns enjoy. Following the passage of Act 46, the town once again secured an exemption. Pointing to high test scores, an enriching school environment, a lack of viable partnering districts and a desire to preserve its community school, the district successfully avoided a merger.

Not long afterward, several families pulled their middle-school-age children from The Newton School, a K-8 school that serves about 100 students, and a debate erupted over the future of the school. Following an independent study and months of research and discussion by a special task force, the Strafford School Board in January narrowly approved a budget that retained the school’s seventh and eighth grades at least for next year.

But the budget, which two board members voted against, did not pass muster with voters. At a contentious school district meeting on March 3, Strafford voters blamed the supervisory union for the steep budget increase and bemoaned a loss of local control resulting from the state’s decision to centralize services — most notably, special education — at the supervisory unions.

“Their expectation was that when we consolidated expenses with the SU, that was going to save us money, and it has not saved money,” Strafford School Board Chairwoman Sarah Root said in a telephone interview last week.

Root acknowledged that a decline in enrollment, particularly at the middle school level, has created challenges for the district. According to the Strafford School District report, enrollment has decreased from 129 in 2013-14 to 106 in 2019-20.

“The fluctuations are an issue in a small school like we have,” Root said.

But she said those fluctuations are not the reason for their budget woes. “I think the issue is lack of trust in the SU,” Root said.

Earlier this year, a budget surplus went missing and has yet to be accounted for, she said. Meanwhile, the central office has had three business managers in just over a year, and the current business manager is still cleaning up other people’s messes, Root said.

The Strafford School Board has authority over very little of the budget, Root said. High school tuition, which is set by Thetford Academy, along with special education, transportation and other costs set by the supervisory union, make up most of the budget, she said. Strafford’s rejected budget called for a special education spending increase of $44,571, and high school tuition increased by $69,182.

As the anger level at the meeting grew, some voters floated the idea of pulling out of the SU and running The Newton School as an independent school. It’s unclear whether such a move is possible — and harder still to predict its cost — but the proposal underscores voters’ discontent over losing control over a large portion of their budget, Labs said.

“The SU seems to become the scapegoat for everything that goes on,” he said. “It just seems to be kind of misdirected.”

Similar tensions are erupting all over the state as the dust from Act 46 continues to settle, Labs said. In many cases, the controversies center on a difference of opinion about what Act 46 was intended to accomplish.

The primary goals of the legislation, which was crafted in response to the state’s ongoing decline in school enrollment, were “to improve education outcomes and equity by creating larger and more efficient school governance structures,” according to the State Board of Education’s final report. To the extent that the legislation was aimed at cost reductions, the expectation wasn’t necessarily to reduce property taxes but to stabilize school budgets over time, as schools contended with shrinking student bodies.

Labs acknowledged that it’s been a turbulent year for the SU as it tries to reconcile budgets in the wake of the high turnover in the business office, as well as going digital with its reporting to the state (a transition that’s affected all supervisory unions, he said).

“We’ve had to look at and rearrange a lot of numbers,” he said.

Further, cost savings opportunities that the SU expected have been slow to develop, he said, mainly because of costs outside of its control such as significant increases in health insurance premiums.

Taxpayers have, however, saved money through initiatives such as WRVSU’s Restorative Classroom program, which allows many special needs students to stay in the SU’s districts rather than being sent to costly out-of-district placements, Labs said.

“You don’t see the things you avoid paying (for),” he said.

The SU also kept its own budget lean — it’s up about 4% next year — Labs said.

Like Strafford residents, Chelsea and Tunbridge residents were under the impression that they would see a drop in property taxes following the centralization of services and the subsequent consolidation of their individual town districts into the First Branch Unified School District, Zigelbaum said.

Instead, Chelsea and Tunbridge residents faced a 6.82% increase in the proposed budget. That amounts to an increase of 12 cents per $100 of assessed value on Chelsea’s property tax bills (or $300 on a $250,000 home) and a 5-cent increase on Tunbridge’s tax bills (or $125 on a $250,000 home).

In contrast with Strafford voters, many in Chelsea and Tunbridge think the answer to their problems lies in further consolidation of their schools, which are operating at only about 30% capacity, Zigelbaum said. But they can’t agree on how to do it. Neither town wants to close its school.

“I think the voters in Chelsea had an idea that the Tunbridge school would close,” Zigelbaum said. “That’s not something Tunbridge voters support.”

After voting down their budget at their March 2 school district meeting, some First Branch voters are now pressing School Board members to show them a budget for a consolidated Chelsea-Tunbridge school. The problem, said Zigelbaum, is the board doesn’t have enough information to create such a budget. The board also doesn’t want to look as though it’s advocating for closing the Tunbridge school, he said.

The board is, however, drawing up plans for educating the district’s K-4 students in Tunbridge and grades 5-8 in Chelsea. The goal is to better serve students as well as encourage residents in the two towns to start working together. It’s unlikely to save the towns money, though, Zigelbaum said.

The two districts have until June 30 to approve their budgets. The Strafford School Board has scheduled a new district meeting for April 11 at 1 p.m. and has approved a new budget with minor changes, Labs said. The First Branch Unified District hasn’t yet scheduled another meeting.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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