By Brigid Scheffert Nease, superintendent of schools
The Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) executive board and the Act 46 Board Study Committee have been meeting jointly twice monthly since September on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Harwood Union High School library. (They have a rescheduled meeting on Thursday, November 19, due to the holiday.) Along with the administration and consultants, they are studying the law and its expected implications for the seven schools in the WWSU, to determine how best to proceed for our communities. All meetings are open to the public and usually broadcast on Mad River Valley TV Channel 44.
We do not have the capacity for individual replies; we will attempt to respond to the questions raised through future publications and at meetings. My state of the state to the WWSU faculty was dedicated to Act 46. It can be viewed by clicking on the link on the wwsu.org home page. The Vermont Agency of Education just revamped their website last week to include many Act 46 helpful resources.
Act 46 is legislation that passed in the spring of 2015 that turns supervisory unions (many boards and many budgets) into supervisory districts (like Burlington, for example) where all seven schools are unified in a prekindergarten through grade 12 structure governed by one board and one budget.
The stated goals of Act 46 of 2015 are fivefold: 1) provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of education opportunities statewide; 2) lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards; 3) maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility; 4) promote transparency and accountability; and 5) deliver education at a cost those parents, voters and taxpayers value.
In WWSU, we understand that Act 46 is law and by 2019 all supervisory unions will be merged in some way, either voluntarily or by the authority of the State Board of Education. We understand that Act 46 allows supervisory unions to design mergers now (the accelerated merger process) and take advantage of tax incentives (the carrot) that won’t be available should we decide to take the “wait and see” approach (the stick). Either way, we will be merged by 2019. We can do it for ourselves now or let the state do it to us later. From everything we have studied to date, it appears that the first groups to the party are the biggest winners, with all the incentives and none of the consequences, and the last groups to the party are the biggest losers with none of the incentives and all of the consequences.
Currently, the WWSU working group has not formulated a position as to whether we think we would be winners and, if so, how big. We do know that even if we feel we will be losers overall, we will lose bigger if we wait and don’t take advantage of the incentives available to us.
The first real decision to be made is whether to hold a special election, likely in May or June 2016, so that all of our taxpayers will vote by Australian ballot to decide. A straw poll of representatives from all towns at our last meeting was unanimous to go for the vote.
Will merger necessarily close schools? No. Will merger make it easier to consider school closures? Yes. However, while it is no secret that a goal of Act 46 is to increase district-level student-to-staff ratios, school closure is no more a certainty under the merged board structure than future school closure in the absence of merger might be, considering declining enrollment trends. The only reason any of our schools would close is because we don’t have enough students to populate them.
Will merger save taxpayer dollars? Maybe or maybe not. The statewide education financing formula doesn’t change with Act 46 and there’s still only one checkbook at the state that taxpayers pay into for Vermont’s public education system as a whole. The amount of burden and relief depends not just upon how we in WWSU budget but how every school district in our state budgets. Act 46 does include tax relief incentives, but only under a voluntary merger. If we wait until the Board of Education merges us in 2019, we will not receive any of the tax relief incentives offered in the law. However, through the education fund, we will be paying the incentives sent to the towns that have merged.
We are in the process of identifying the pros and the cons of merging our schools into one union school district.
We believe that all WWSU schools offer a high-quality education environment, but Harwood Union High School (HUHS) is suffering the effects of declining enrollment from all of our towns and that trend is expected to continue. In 2009, HUHS had 850 equalized pupils to draw revenue into the system. Costs including labor and health care have continued to rise each year since then. The number of equalized pupils for FY 2016 at HUHS is 707. Therefore $9,459 x 143 fewer equalized pupils means a loss of revenue of $1,352,637. We cannot afford ourselves now.
The high school building and its learning labs are aging and outdated. The enrichment opportunities continue to take hits each year as budget cuts are imposed. Other top tier high schools across the state are increasing the number of AP classes, adding languages and STEM programs, offering extracurricular activities like speech and debate team, future engineers of America, Robotics Club, classes in coding, and so on. A bare bones high school should be a concern to all of us as this impacts property values. Families move into the towns of WWSU not just for the elementary school experience but also for the secondary school experience and we have a collective responsibility to maximize efficiencies across our district to the greatest extent possible and improve the educational experience overall.
Scheffert Nease is the superintendent of the Washington West Supervisory Union.