Caution: Merging school districts ahead?
Our local school boards are working on the consolidations of school districts required by Act 46. In several years the State Board of Education (SBE) will have the power to arrange districts that are not already in approved governance structures according to an overall state wide plan. The SBE has the power to force a district into a merged structure with a combined board without a vote of the community. This would eliminate the local school board and put the community under the articles of agreement of the combined board that might work against local interests. This is the state "stick" to force consolidation.
However, the SBE can only force mergers so that like districts are with like districts in terms of patterns of operating and tuitioning grades. In other words, a district that operates pre K through grade 12 cannot be merged with a district that is pre K through sixth grade. So degrees of school choice are somewhat protected, but to avoid forced placement by the SBE districts may opt to give up some degree of choice to merge. A district may end up in a combination with other communities with which they have no historical ties nor geographic connection in order to satisfy the arbitrary merger rules.
The property tax reductions that are incentives for merging will mean education property tax payments that are lower than they otherwise would have been for eligible communities. This is the state "carrot." The reduction will come through whether a Vermont resident pays based on homestead property value or based on income. In general, the dollar value of the reduction will be greater the more a person was paying. For many taxpayers the initial first year maximum ten cent property tax rate reduction will result in a reduction of taxes owed ranging from $80 to $300. However, because the cost of such incentives is paid for within the Education Fund, the more districts there are receiving these merger property tax reductions, the higher the base property tax rates will be, and therefore the net reduction for taxpayers in merging districts could end up being smaller. I think that the state should have paid for the cost of these incentives to keep property taxes down, and I offered an amendment to a bill this session that would have required this, but House Leadership refused to allow a vote on it.
The Act 46 rules for consolidations are hard to satisfy among the districts in our part of the state. We have a lot of variety in patterns of choice and operating grades, and we have historical ties that bind districts together. My advice to communities is to pursue mergers that make sense for educational and financial reasons. Rushing into permanent combinations in order to get the temporary tax reductions doesn't make a lot of sense. Rushing into permanent combinations to avoid the possibility of forced merger by the SBE also doesn't make sense: a district could end up losing some degree of choice in order to be able to combine or end up in an arrangement with other districts with whom they have no working relationships. Such consolidations may ultimately fall apart later, like a shotgun marriage ending in divorce.
Districts should work to create the most effective governance structures that they can based on local needs and preferences, and if these structures don't fit the rules, districts should ask for a waiver from the SBE. If it is not granted, I would contemplate legal action. I don't think that this unelected, appointed board should have the power to deny school districts and their democratically elected boards the future they have chosen.
During this session I have worked to loosen the rules for merging to make it easier for districts to comply with Act 46. I tried to make the mergers ultimately voluntary. I tried to lower the number of students required for all structures and to make the rules governing what are called "side by side" districts more flexible. These are structures where there can be merged districts with one board side by side within a supervisory union framework, and more variety in the permitted combinations would make it easier. House Leadership refused to allow a vote on any of these changes to the Act 46 rules. I believe that they are afraid to change any of the rules because it would be an admission that their rules do not work for many communities. I also believe that they are afraid to allow votes because these kinds of changes would have significant support in the House.
I have presented the proposal to lower the required number of students and to loosen up the "side by side" rules to the Senate Education Committee. If you think that it would be good to have more flexibility in developing consolidation structures, contact our senators: Senator Brian Campion at email@example.com and Senator Dick Sears at firstname.lastname@example.org , or leave a message at 802-828-2228 at the Sergeant-at-Arms office.
The mandated centralization in Act 46 is a misguided approach to our education problems. Where consolidation of governance makes sense, districts should be rewarded for doing it. But we should have MORE local involvement in schools not less, and where consolidation doesn't make sense to communities it should not be required. Where there are schools that are not performing well, the state should provide special assistance and guidance to improve quality. We could have reduced the rate of growth of property taxes more effectively 1) by altering the health insurance programs provided in the education system, and 2) requiring the state to pay for all unfunded mandates and other costs imposed on the Education Fund by state policies.
Cynthia Browning is a state representative to the Legislature from the district that includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.
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