A few themes emerged at two public forums that the community was invited to attend regarding an upcoming June 7 vote for an accelerated version of Act 46. The law’s intention is to create financial savings by consolidating school governance and budgets across the state, as well as creating more equity and quality of education, Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease said.
If all WWSU districts vote to consolidate early, property owners and schools will receive financial benefits for up to five years. If four districts vote to merge, there would be up to four years of tax savings. Scheffert Nease said that if towns vote no on merging early, residents will see tax increases and cuts in educational programming for students.
One forum was hosted by the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) Act 46 study committee on Wednesday, April 27, at Harwood Union High School (HUHS). This was the second of four meetings that the group will host.
The other was organized by Beth Schoellkopf and community members on Thursday, April 28, at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield.
Voters, many of whom no longer have children in WWSU schools, showed up at both meetings to talk about, among other topics, potential issues associated with a consolidated governance structure and the larger, underlying, financial problems plaguing Vermont.
The consolidation will create a single board composed of two representatives from each school district and four from Waterbury. A total of 14 individuals would govern the six WWSU elementary schools.
At the Wednesday meeting, one community member wondered how equipped this small number of volunteers would be in working through issues faced by several schools. It’s “the question of bandwidth,” he said. How much time and energy will be available with less people making more decisions?
Another asked why the Act 46 committee included in their constitution, or articles of agreement, that a two-thirds vote, rather than a unanimous vote, would be required to close schools. She said that this model makes it too easy for buildings to be closed, but Act 46 study committee chair Gabe Gilman said that allowing for a unanimous vote could be a “prescription for paralysis.”
At Thursday’s forum, Schoellkopf said that the consolidated board will cause a “real change of culture,” adding that “the bigger you get, the less likely you are to know what’s happening in your backyard.”
Warren resident Barry Simpson echoed this concern. He said that when the HUHS board became composed of members from each school district, parents felt “a loss of ownership” in the decision-making process. “Votes are co-mingled so you never know how your town feels about certain issues,” he said.
Another resident added, “Nobody goes [to HUHS board meetings] anymore because your voice doesn’t matter.”
Several residents asked how communities could be ensured that each board member on the unified board would be representing the needs of all Valley schools, not just the district from which they were elected. “Unless the entire board is thinking like a community, what’s best for the whole community, there could be potential issues there. ... I just want us all to be aware of that weakness of the system,” one resident shared.
Gilman said that the state board of education (BOE) will make sure there is equity in the decision-making process. “Equity is paramount among all the things they are policing,” he said, adding that the ability for towns to choose their board members via election will mitigate this issue.
Waterbury-Duxbury board member Jason Gibbs said that the newly elected board members will also sign an oath that would require them to serve the public interest, “just like legislators do.”
Commentary from both forums also touched on what one resident called “a fatalist view” regarding Act 46 overall – the rhetoric that choosing to consolidate quickly is, relatively speaking, the better option than voting no.
“It’s very depressing as a citizen to hear this,” she told the Act 46 study committee on Wednesday.
Scheffert Nease said that she agrees that Act 46 is a “horrible law,” and added, “But it’s law.”
She told community members that “you can only change what you can control” and that it’s necessary to “be a realist.”
Gibbs said the problem is not Act 46 but the underlying economic structure that governs towns. With the workforce shrinking and families leaving Vermont, student enrollment decreases, thereby decreasing educational funding from the state. “That’s sort of the fact of life,” he said.
“How do we play the hand we have been dealt by the Legislature?” Gilman asked.
At Thursday’s forum, a resident asked why consolidating governance is the state’s remedy for creating financial savings when salaries and health care costs are constantly increasing. This year, health care costs rose about 8 percent.
Another resident said that she did not understand why the WWSU recently created an administrative position in the central office with an $82,000 salary while programming is under threat of being cut for students.
“Why isn’t the state doing something to attack the root of the problem?” someone asked.