Community members showed up to discuss and debate issues of community participation, financial savings and quality of education during the Act 46 study committee’s first public forum on March 31 at Harwood Union High School (HUHS).
Moretown representative and study committee chair Gabe Gilman told the audience that Act 46 will consolidate school districts – that is, management and budgets – across the state by July of 2019 or sooner with an accelerated version that would begin in July 2017.
Gilman said that Vermont schools face declining enrollment with a high ratio of teachers to students. As enrollment decreases, school budgets are cut since funding is allocated to schools based on student populations. “For a long time and through a lot of political difficulty, folks in Montpelier knew that had to be fixed,” he said.
The accelerated version of the consolidation comes with financial incentives, Gilman said, such as homestead property tax savings that start at 10 cents and decrease by 2 cents every year for five years. If a majority of districts within the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) do not vote to accelerate the merger, the first year of 10 cent savings would be lost for those who voted in its favor.
“If you go willingly and cheerfully, you get the best. If you drag your feet a little bit, you get the second best,” he said. The state will consolidate those districts that did not vote to merge early by July of 2019 without any financial incentives. “This one comes with teeth,” he said.
WAS THE PROCESS PARTICIPATORY?
Some community members voiced concerns about whether or not the study committee has been a closed group, making decisions internally rather than opening up dialogue to the public as they wrote a constitution – or articles of agreement – that would govern the newly merged WWSU board.
One resident asked the committee to explain “why you’ve created a process or managed a process that didn’t involve public comment on the articles. Because that’s where people would’ve been able to articulate some of their concerns about this merger.”
Gilman said that the “premise is false” in that all study committee meetings have been public and that residents could have submitted questions to a WWSU email address if they had concerns, but community members replied that public meetings cannot be equated to a participatory dialogue.
At the committee’s past meetings, “It’s public comment, but it’s not a conversation,” one resident said.
Study committee vice chair and Waitsfield School Board member Christine Sullivan said that what the committee has produced in the form of articles that they will submit to the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) “are just governance rules.”
She said that their mission was to set up the new board and how it would operate, but once the new board is in place those individuals will create specific policies to be implemented in schools. “That is probably the better avenue for public input,” she said. “We can’t get bogged down in the details.”
Waterbury School Board member Jason Gibbs said that with 20 public warned meetings, “The notion that the public hasn’t had the opportunity to come to this room or an individual board meeting and express their point of view on any of these articles or any part of this conversation is patently false.”
Gilman said that while the articles have already been written and submitted to the AOE and “the train has left the station, as far as the text of this,” he added that “the train comes back every now and again.” He said that special public meetings will be held annually to amend the articles and that the study committee is “absolutely delighted” to attend individual school board meetings should residents want to hear more about Act 46 or the articles of agreement in the meantime.
Issues of public participation were tied to concerns about individual school boards losing control of what happens in schools with a single board. Gilman said that the consolidation will get people to think of all WWSU schools as one and less about one’s school being that building which is geographically closest to them.
He said that this concern “is an artifact of this multi-board system,” explaining that with individual boards, residents may not know where to take their concerns as so many boards exists, but with a single board they will have one group to consult.
TAX INCENTIVES DETAILS
Community members asked about financial incentives, such as reductions to the homestead property tax rate that would come with an accelerated version of the merger for up to five years.
One resident questioned how these reductions would be funded. “Is this money that’s really going from our left pocket into our right?” He said that he was “concerned with the use of the term ‘incentive’” if these sums were coming from “the same pot of money.”
State representative and Warren School Board member Adam Greshin said that the money is coming primarily from the state’s education fund with a quarter coming from the general fund, which is made of property taxes.
Gilman said that money is shuffled around in such a way that those districts who do not wish to participate in an accelerated version of the merger would be paying for others’ tax rate decreases in those five years.
One community member said, “They’re genuine incentives – not genuine savings.”
“It’s a good deal,” Greshin said, “depending on which district you happen to live in.”
QUALITY OF EDUCATION
Questions of how the act will address quality of education for students arose several times, as study committee members have often said in the past that more programming will be created in schools as resources are shared and that ultimately the committee’s work has been for the good of the students.
One community member received applause when he said, “This act here is just another muddling from the top down that is not going to accomplish what it’s setting out to do,” and, “You don’t buy quality. It comes from the interest of participants and parents.”
He added that Harwood Union High School (HUHS) is “losing quality, but it’s already a unified district,” and that everyone should “try to get off the money thing and get to quality.”
Warren School Board member and study committee member Alycia Biondo said, “The basis of the project is the financial piece ... in hopes that the educational piece would follow suit.”
Waitsfield Elementary School principal Kaiya Korb said that small class sizes of under 10 students impact the educational experience for students and that the act could help with this by potentially closing and consolidating the smallest schools.
A community member said that he wanted to remind the audience that the study committee is not responsible for improving the quality of education; rather, “This group’s primary purpose is to navigate the byzantine realities of Vermont’s educational system and I think they’re doing that as best they can.”
Fayston School Board member and study committee member Doug Mosle added, “We’re trying to create the best thing for our students out of the law that exists.”
WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease told audience members that between April 28 and May 8, local constituents can run for positions on the newly unified board via petition. Each district will vote for the acceleration on June 7.
The study committee will host three more public forums on Wednesday, April 27, at the HUHS library; on Wednesday, May 11, at the Thatcher Brook Primary School gym; and on May 25 at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield. All forums begin at 6:30 p.m.