At their meeting on Wednesday, October 28, the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) Act 46 Study Committee decided to strive for an accelerated transition under Act 46, a new state law that seeks to consolidate school districts across the state by 2019.
Tax incentives and grants are available to supervisory unions that choose the accelerated transition, which must be voted on by taxpayers by July of 2016.
Last week, WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease suggested a May or June vote for the transition and asked committee members a series of questions, such as what advantages and disadvantages they see in the act, when and how it would be beneficial to provide information to the community and whether members would agree to advance toward the accelerated option.
Despite the general hesitation to proceed, several members felt that the accelerated transition is a better option than resisting the act all together. Fayston School Board member Jill Ellis explained, “If we don’t do it now, it’s going to be done to us and I’d rather have a say in how it’s done.”
Board members voiced a concern that community members seem to think that the merger would combine schools and Nease clarified that the merger applies solely to governance, stating “one board, one budget.”
Scheffert Nease also voiced the need to convey to the community that Act 46 is not a product of the WWSU. “I don’t work at the state of Vermont. I don’t make the laws,” Scheffert Nease said. “I’m here to help you navigate.”
Although Scheffert Nease and several board members are hopeful about moving forward with consolidation, some expressed uncertainty and dismay regarding a perceived loss of local control for individual towns.
According to Warren School Board member Alycia Biondo, “We’re all irked with how the state is enforcing this with tax penalties. It hurts a little bit,” she said. Biondo is concerned that individual schools would not be represented fairly with “only one voice on a larger board,” she said, although previous presentations about Act 46 have indicated that there are other ways for individual towns to have input.
Last Wednesday, board members also aired their confusion surrounding the new state law. Engaging community members in Act 46 is a “doubled-edged sword, because of how complex it all is,” Biondo said, voicing the need to “put real numbers in our taxpayers’ hands.”
Although board members are unsure about all that Act 46 implies for the future, according to Moretown School Board member and study committee chair Gabe Gilman, their role is to “mitigate uncertainty” within the community, he said, even though they can’t “promise numbers.”
Moving forward, the study committee will work on drafting a constitution as well as a report for the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) as to what consolidation will look like for the WWSU.
Previously, Scheffert Nease met with members of other districts within Vermont that are further along in the transition, such as Essex and Mt. Mansfield. Moving forward, the study committee could draw on their experiences and reports for guidance. “The structure has to come in now,” she said.
More information about committees, consultants and cost models is available on the WWSU’s website (wwsu.org) under the Act 46 tab and Scheffert Nease will create an email account where community members can direct questions regarding the merger.