Warren School Board chair Matthew “Chicky” Staples said that the board needed to “receive those fears, questions, doubts and insecurities,” regarding Act 46, the option for Warren Elementary School to become independent and the impending bond debt of $2.55 million for school repairs.
On Monday, April 4, at Warren Elementary School, residents gathered to voice concerns and ask questions, primarily about Act 46. The law would consolidate school boards and budgets into a single operation by July 2019 or by July 2017 should a vote for an accelerated version pass in early June.
PURPOSE OF CONSOLIDATION
Board members Jen Watkins and Alycia Biondo, both of whom serve on the Act 46 study committee, presented information about Act 46 with principal Beth Peterson. They said that the purpose of the law was to create savings in educational spending throughout the state.
Peterson said that many Vermont schools suffer from declining enrollment, and the state thinks that over a five- to 10-year period they can get small schools to consolidate and close. She added that Warren Elementary School does not have these enrollment or size issues, but others in the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) do.
Board members presented financial benefits of the consolidation, which include homestead property tax decreases over a five-year period – beginning with 10 cents and decreasing by 2 cents thereafter.
Other financial incentives include the elimination of a state-mandated spending cap for schools, in effect for five years after the consolidation begins, and the ability for several small schools within the WWSU to obtain certain grants. There are other anticipated “operational efficiencies,” board members said.
EDUCATION IS ABOUT MORE THAN MONEY
A community member said that while school districts have been consolidated in the U.S. since the 1980s, many of those consolidated are still struggling with the same financial issues that they had previously. Further, she said, the aspect of financial savings needs to be teased apart from quality of education in the overall discussion.
“If you think there’s a correlation between spending and education quality of our schools, just wonder about that,” she said.
Watkins said that along with the many financial incentives offered by the consolidation, there may be losses too and board members listed concerns brought to their attention by community members in the recent past.
CHANGING POWER DYNAMICS
The primary concern was a question of whether the unified board would be responsive to the values and needs of each smaller community and whether a loss of local control for each school would lead to decreased engagement of parents.
Watkins said that parents and other community members may begin to experience disempowerment as a larger unified board takes shape.
Peterson added that school boards would not lose all control with decisions affecting individual schools but would have “substantially less control.”
Harwood representative and Act 46 study committee member Rosemarie White disagreed that issues of control would arise with a centralized board. “I feel positive that only good is going to come from this,” she said of Act 46.
Several community members voiced a concern that the Act 46 study committee did not complete an objective assessment of how WWSU districts could proceed under the law. “No one seems to like this act, but everyone is told over and over that it’s either X or Y,” one resident said, referring to the ongoing rhetoric that puts forth two options for districts – that they adhere to the law immediately and reap financial benefits for at least five years or hold out for the law to inevitably take effect in 2019.
Alternative options, such as the transition from public to independent school status, were “briefly mentioned and then quickly written off,” a resident added. Biondo said that the Act 46 study committee received funding of $20,000 from the state with the purpose of studying the accelerated version of the merger – not every option available.
One resident said that with 100 independent schools in Vermont – although only two have transitioned from public status – “this [independence] is not a crazy thing.”
Warren Elementary School and community members will continue to hold public meetings for residents to better understand what is happening and to voice concerns. This forum was merely an “orientation,” as one resident put it. A vote for the accelerated version of the Act 46 consolidation will be held on June 7 for all WWSU districts.