As Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) districts prepare to vote on an accelerated version of the state-mandated school district consolidation, members of the Act 46 study committee continue to weigh financial benefits against other perceived losses.
At their April 13 meeting, new Warren Elementary School board member and Act 46 study committee member Jen Watkins said, “I feel like we’re cutting down an old-growth forest for five years of tax incentives.”
Watkins is not the first to question whether financial benefits that come with a voluntary, accelerated version of the law are worth what many community members have foreseen as a loss of governance and a poor solution to improving educational quality for students.
“I understand that we’re not here debating Act 46,” Watkins said, as the committee was tasked not with evaluating the efficacy and merits of the law itself but with an accelerated version, which would see implementation as early as July 2017, as opposed to the state-mandated deadline of July 2019. She added, “I really believe that it is not going to be a positive change to take the decision-making machinery out of the individual district.”
She said that communities which currently form around their individual school districts will be “less connected,” as the law would consolidate local school boards to form a single board with representatives from each district – two each from schools in Waitsfield, Fayston, Warren, Moretown and Duxbury and four representatives from Waterbury. These numbers are based on population.
Several study committee members replied by emphasizing the dire financial state of the WWSU. Waterbury-Duxbury board member Sam Jackson said, “We need more money to improve quality [of education].”
The financial benefits that come with an accelerated version of the law are as follows: up to five years of tax reductions – beginning with 10 cents off of every $100 of property value and declining 2 cents for each following year; the retention of Moretown and Fayston elementary school grants totaling $110,000; about $120,000 for the newly merged district as “transition money” from the state; temporary exemptions from fees that normally come with declining enrollment and exceeding state spending limits; and possible savings by centralizing audits, educational materials, bus service, food service, special education and maintenance costs.
WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease has written that with health care costs rising 7.9 percent and salaries rising 3.75 percent in the WWSU, local school budgets will have to be cut unless financial savings can result from Act 46. On April 13, she told the committee that if WWSU finances do not improve, they will need to cut programs in foreign language, music and other arts.
Study committee chair and Moretown board member Gabe Gilman said that the committee is not tasked with figuring out whether the act will improve educational quality for students. “It’s not that we don’t care about it,” he said. “It’s that we’re supposed to be setting up a governance framework.”
But Waterbury-Duxbury board member Alex Thomsen said that the law is not solely about financial savings. “If it’s just about the money,” she said, “we wouldn’t be spending the hours that we are in here. It’s also about the educational vision too.”
“There’s very little for kids who are not athletes to do after school at Harwood,” said HUHS board member Garrett MacCurtain, who added, “If it [the accelerated version of Act 46] gets voted down, I think Harwood will cease to be a first-class institution ... from the academic perspective.”
Warren’s Harwood Union High School (HUHS) representative Rosemarie White explained that when she saw the HUHS girls’ field hockey team wearing uniforms borrowed from the HUHS boys’ soccer team, “You see the difference between what our kids do and have, and [that of] other schools.”
“If we don’t figure out a way to afford what we’ve got now, we’re never going to be able to invest in a system change,” said Waterbury-Duxbury board member Jason Gibbs. He added, “The No. 1 issue that people say they want addressed in this supervisory union, and you’re not going to be surprised to hear this, is property taxes.”
Waitsfield board member and Act 46 study committee vice chair Christine Sullivan said, “It is getting to a point where we’re going to have to start making decisions that, because people can’t continue to deal with the tax increases that they’re getting, that we’re going to have to make decisions that are going to impact the education that our kids get, in a negative way.”
While community members in Warren have discussed applying for a waiver from Act 46 for Warren Elementary School and the option of filing for independent status that would allow for a local board to remain in place, Scheffert Nease said that the application has “a chance of a snowball in hell.”
“It’s possible, not probable. It’s not even probable, in my opinion,” she said. “We would never be eligible. You’d have to demonstrate cost savings that would be beyond anything that would be true for you,” Scheffert Nease told Watkins.
“I don’t think it’s productive or necessary for us to go around this horn again, because it’s settled. We’re going to the state board and moving forward and that’s all there is to it,” Gibbs said. “I don’t know how we address ... the workforce opportunities we want to give kids, with a governance system that is so fractured that we’re having a difficult time contemplating whether or not we’re going to purse an accelerated merger that’s mandated.”
Watkins said, “If you see something that the Legislature has done and you don’t think it’s a good idea, I don’t think it’s our job to just get on board and go along. I don’t think that makes for a healthy democracy. ... I think governance stops working when people start behaving that way.”
The study committee will host three public forums in the near future: Wednesday, April 27, 6:30 p.m., at the Harwood library; Wednesday, May 11, 6:30 p.m., at Thatcher Brook Primary School gym; and Wednesday, May 25, 6:30 p.m., at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield.