A group that is working to understand and promote the consolidation of school districts within the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) met on February 10 to discuss how Valley community members seem to perceive the effects of this statewide mandate.
The Act 46 study committee strategized about how to secure a successful vote on May 3 — one in which each local school district chooses to proceed with an accelerated version of the merger.
Under Act 46, management and financial activity of school districts across the state are set to be consolidated by July of 2019 with an accelerated option that must be voted on by the public and completed by July of 2017. The accelerated option allows taxpayers in each district to become eligible for up to five years of tax incentives.
The group reviewed how the impending socialization of school districts’ debts has been viewed by Valley residents after a conversation had by the Warren Elementary School Board in which they questioned whether they could expand a construction project to include noncritical elements since debt will eventually be shared by districts in the future.
Committee members said that many voters outside of Warren are not in favor of the accelerated merger because they do not want to pay for Warren’s newly incurred debt — an amount that will be known in early March after the contracting firm TruexCullins finishes a scoping study of the building. The WWSU has used the figure $3 million in order to make certain financial projections in the past.
Referring to the close scheduling of votes for both the Warren bond and the accelerated merger, “The timing is just poisonous and disastrous,” said committee chair and Moretown representative Gabe Gilman.
Waitsfield representative Christine Sullivan said, “There are people in our districts who are willing to vote no for the merger on the basis of Warren’s bond. They’re willing to give up all the incentives that are out there, knowing that we’re still going to be merged four years from now and Warren’s bond will become our bond.”
The group emphasized that each district will inevitably take on large debts in future years — that Warren is not unique; rather, they happen to be facing the accumulation of debt at an inconvenient time due to deferred maintenance at the school.
WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease relayed what the supervisory union’s legal consultant had previously told her. “You really need to start thinking about it as a large load of laundry. It’s all going to come out in the wash.”
Even with a bond of $3 million, she explained, taxpayers will not see a large increase when the amount is shared, and “it will be absorbed in 2019 anyway,” she said, regardless of the accelerated process.
Waterbury-Duxbury representative Alex Thomsen added that “to single out this one particular thing (Warren’s future debt) as the only risk doesn’t make any sense. There are risks in every single one of our schools.”
Act 46 consultant Walter Nardelli said that all districts will benefit from the consolidation because “you’re spreading the problems over a bigger base so that no one is getting hit completely by themselves,” he went on, “rather than everyone just having to solve their own problems.”
A MORE CULTURAL ISSUE
When looking at the shared cost of Warren’s bond, as well as the tax incentives that come with an accelerated merger if the majority of districts vote for it, Scheffert Nease said that the objection from voters to support the acceleration is not about the finances.
“Your problem isn’t the bond,” she said, but “the cultural perception.”
“How can we get ourselves out of that?” she asked the group, proposing that each district’s vote could be named as “advisable.”
All school districts were classified by the study committee as “advisable,” meaning that school boards are not required to bring a vote for the accelerated merger to their district’s voters. If they do decide to put forth a vote and the public votes against the acceleration, this option can still move forward with a majority of towns voting in favor of it.
“Everyone else can still come together,” Scheffert Nease said.
If a school board decides not to put forth a public vote, 10 percent of that district’s voters can organize a petition that would allow the vote to proceed. In Warren, this number is approximately 150 voters, Scheffert Nease explained.
A school district can also be named as “necessary,” meaning that it would be required to bring a vote to the public. However, if one school district voted against the acceleration, the option would be foiled for the WWSU as a whole and the committee would be back to the drawing board.
Committee members strategized for other options that would not allow for the impending bond in Warren to hinder votes in favor of the acceleration. Gilman asked if the group could “write Warren out in a friendly way that invites them back in at a later time under certain conditions” —allowing the school district more time to come to conclusions with the bond amount, as well as a portion of the community’s curiosity about forming an independent school.
Warren representative Rob Rosen said that this would “let the dust settle,” but Waterbury-Duxbury representative Jason Gibbs called this idea “parliamentary trickery” that “automatically conveys a lack of unanimity.”
Fayston representative Doug Mosle said that if a school district does not hold a vote for the public, “It will be perceived and played out as an overstepping of the board’s authority.”
“You have a small group of people making very significant decisions for their town and I do think that taxpayers in that town have a right to vote,” he said.
Sullivan asked if a series of articles that the committee is writing to submit to the state Agency of Education (AOE) could contain language that limits the amount of bond debt that Warren takes on, but Warren board chair Michael Ketchel said that Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe has told the board that they must proceed with all necessary repairs due to safety issues and they cannot limit the number of repairs that are completed.
After naming each school district as “advisable,” the group continued to write the articles of agreement which will be submitted to the AOE for feedback by March 1. Votes in each school district will take place on May 3. Scheffert Nease said that in August a meeting would be held for newly elected board members, but that current board members would continue to tie up loose ends and close their local districts through late December of 2017.