While the Act 46 study committee worked to complete a series of reports and articles that are required for an accelerated version of the statewide consolidation of school management, they considered whether, or how, the closing of Valley schools could occur.
Act 46 is a state bill that requires school districts to merge, either voluntarily, as is being explored in the Washington West Supervisory Union, or at the direction of the state. Voluntary consolidation allows towns to create some of their own articles of operation and brings with it education tax breaks. Voluntary consolidation will happen by the 2017-2018 tax year and state-directed consolidation will happen in July 2019.
At their February 18 meeting, committee members discussed an article that would allow for a closed building to remain in use for educational purposes, including adult learning and other alternative programs.
Some committee members said that a closed building could be used to house the central offices of the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU), but WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease said that it would not be cost effective.
“I realize that at some point, the decision might come down the road,” said Fayston representative Doug Mosle, adding, “There should be a barrier towards closure.” He said that the study committee does not want to “handcuff the future board” by including language that could prohibit them from closing a school, “but I think that it’s important not to make it too easy of a decision.”
Waitsfield representative and committee vice chair Christine Sullivan said, “We don’t want to handcuff them (the new board) too much,” but Moretown representative and study committee chair Gabe Gilman said, “If we overtie the hands of the board, which we could do, that’s not irreversible.”
He explained that the new board could reverse components of the articles “with almost alarming ease”— that it takes “a simple majority at the special annual meeting to reconfigure any of these.”
“Constraining what will go on, at least for the first several years, is what we’re supposed to be doing,” he explained, adding that he is more worried that “some of these protections may be illusory.”
Just as closing a school would be a financial decision, the committee discussed other fiscal savings that could come with an accelerated merger.
Scheffert Nease said that with the first-year 10 cent tax savings under the accelerated version of the merger, taxpayers throughout the WWSU would save a total of $1,817,000. “If you wanted to bring relief to taxpayers in its equivalent without being merged and made cuts, you’d have to cut per pupil spending $987 for each pupil to realize that same benefit for your taxpayers.”
Tax savings in the following four years — 8 cents, 6 cents, 4 cents and 2 cents — could save taxpayers a total of $1,454,000, $1,090,000, $727,000 and $364,000, respectively.
Scheffert Nease said that by merging middle schools in The Valley, a savings of $600,000 could result. “That level of savings would really rack up,” she told committee members.
Director of finance and operations Michelle Baker calculated that if the bond that Warren must bring to their taxpayers this year for building repairs is as high as $3 million, taxpayers would see a $.013 increase on their tax bills in year two — the highest year of the bond. “A smidgen of a penny is what it would actually cost,” Scheffert Nease said.
The committee will submit the reports and articles to the Vermont Agency of Education by March 1 and the public will vote on an accelerated version of the merger in early May.