BENNINGTON >> Tuesday's forum on Act 46 at the Bennington Firehouse may have brought just as many questions as it did answers.
A partnership between the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and the Town of Bennington, the forum was an opportunity for residents of southern Bennington County to ask questions of two representatives from the Vermont Agency of Education, as well as hear a presentation from SVSU Finance Manager Renee Gordon on the costs taxpayers could end up bearing under different merger scenarios.
Coming from Montpelier to answer questions were Principal Assistant Donna Russo Savage, who was one of the primary authors of the legislation, and Education Finance Manager Brad James, who has been helping districts across the state understand the financial ramifications of potential mergers. Bennington Town Manager Stu Hurd moderated the forum, and SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen and Chairman Nelson Brownell were also available to take questions.
Gordon's presentation, which had been eagerly awaited by many school board members, did little to clarify the financial situation facing the SU, as the projected tax rates she presented did not include potential tuition from outside students into the newly formed districts. For example, she projected a tax rate increase of 50 cents (or 33 percent) for Bennington in the event that it merged with Mount Anthony Union to form its own pre-K through 12 district, while the smaller districts that were part MAU formed a separate structure of their own outside of that. However, that projected rate hike would only come to fruition if no students from Shaftsbury, Pownal, North Bennington, or Woodford attended MAU High School after the merger. In reality, even if those smaller districts were to be given school choice for grades 7-12, it is likely that the vast majority of students would continue to attend high school in Bennington, and they would pay tuition set by the Bennington board, driving the tax rate in Bennington down. Gordon said that her numbers represented a "worst case scenario."
Russo Savage said there are six paths districts can take to come into compliance with the law: forming a Regional Education District (RED), a Modified Unified Union School District (MUUSD), a Layered District, a Side-by-Side District, a Later Conventional Merger, and an Alternative Structure. She laid out what those options would look like for the SVSU, while being clear that she was not promoting any over the others.
Under the RED model, all the districts would form a single district with a single tax rate and a single school board. North Bennington would need to vote to give up school choice in grades K-6, and its students would attend the other public elementary schools in the SVSU. Presumably, the district could also pursue reopening the North Bennington Graded School under this model. The board members of North Bennington, however, have shown no indication that they would like to give up school choice, and have even expressed a desire to expand choice to grades 7-12, making this model unlikely at best. A Later Conventional Model would look the same, but there is a more lax deadline and no associated tax incentives.
The second model, a MUUSD, commonly referred to as a MUD, would involve forming a pre-K through 12 union school district, which would share a board and a tax rate, comprised of every district except North Bennington. North Bennington would maintain school choice for pre-K through 6th grade, but would send all its children to the union middle and high school, much like it does now. A model like this one was one of the models considered by the SVSU Act 46 Study Committee before it disbanded, but concerns arose regarding how a board would be formatted. Specifically, Bennington representatives called for proportional representation, meaning that they would have over 60 percent of the voting power on the board, while representatives from smaller districts were afraid that would give Bennington unilateral power over their schools and tax rates.
A Layered District would be similar, in that all the elementary school districts except North Bennington would merge to form a unified elementary district. Mount Anthony Union would continue to operate, and North Bennington would still send its students there, and have choice for the elementary grades. Concerns about representation on the unified elementary board would still exist under this model.
Any other models would require at least North Bennington holding a vote to leave Mount Anthony Union. That scenario would first require a vote of North Bennington. If that vote passed, Bennington, Shaftsbury, Pownal and Woodford would all need to vote to allow the town to leave the union district. If any town voted no, North Bennington would be forced to stay and consider one of the options above, so long as MAU remains operational and the law remains unchanged. Any other districts that wanted to leave, such as Shaftsbury, would have to follow the same procedure.
Russo Savage said it was unclear how the process would be modified if more than one school wanted to leave at the same time, as that has never happened before in the state. "If two districts knew and were willing to work together," she said, "it seems that it would make sense for them to have their votes at the same time or about the same time, so that potentially the other districts could vote on both of those at the same time."
Russo Savage said that if the SVSU is not able to submit a voter-approved plan to the Agency of Education before November of 2017, the state Board of Education could mandate that the districts merge into a MUUSD or Layered model. It could not, however, force them into a RED model, as the law clearly states that a district cannot be made to change from operating to tuitioning, or vice versa, without approval from voters. The voters of North Bennington are unlikely to give up elementary school choice after voting to approve it in October 2012 and again in January 2013.
Culkeen and Brownell spoke to the next steps for the SVSU. At Wednesday night's SVSU meeting, Brownell said he would recommend forming an informal study committee, which North Bennington could join without limiting its other options, in the event of a vote to leave MAU being rejected. That informal committee can continue to study the various potential scenarios available to the district, even while the status of North Bennington remains in flux.
A full recording of the meeting will be broadcast on Catamount Access Television, and is currently available on the station's YouTube channel.
Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.