Are the carrots and sticks big enough?
Part 1 – The Carrots
By Brigid Scheffert Nease
One of the biggest decisions facing voters of the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) this decade could be whether or not to merge the WWSU school districts into one school district with one budget. With Vermont’s Act 46 School Consolidation Law, school boards are now required to consider formally consolidating governance of all schooling in the WWSU into a single preschool through grade 12 unified union school district.
The WWSU Act 46 Study Committee, with the WWSU Executive Committee Board, with representatives from each WWSU town, is charged with studying consolidating school governance through an accelerated merger process. This law gives the local boards the decision-making authority to determine how they will merge from July 1, 2015, until July 1, 2019. After that, the law requires the secretary of education and the State Board of Education to decide how to merge districts that have not merged by July 1, 2019, into the required PreK-12 governing units.
Our study committee is working hard to understand the law and evaluate the pros and cons of complying with it sooner rather than later. By late March, the committee must prepare and submit a report to the State Board of Education on the feasibility of combining all of the WWSU districts into one new district with one school board. If the study determines that unification is feasible and possibly advisable and if the State Board of Education approves the submitted plan with the very specific locally determined articles of agreement, a vote by Australian ballot will occur on the same day in each of the WWSU communities, likely in May but no later than June 30, 2016.
My first writing focused on the law itself and our local challenges, especially our declining enrollment, where to find information and the work of the committee to date. This writing will focus mainly on two of three key areas of study: the possible educational opportunities and the incentives. Next week’s piece will address the consequences of doing nothing.
INCREASED EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
The increased educational opportunities being identified include but are not limited to:
Parents could exercise school choice within the schools in the WWSU without serious financial penalty to any one school. Students could attend any of our schools. Parents could choose the school closest to their homes.
We would have increased capacity and better flexibility among schools to share staffing where feasible and necessary to address declining enrollment. This would give us a better chance of right sizing student-to-staff ratios, not only to reduce spending but to provide a more robust peer group for our classes. We currently have and have seen over the last several years some elementary classrooms with eight to 11 students and middle school classrooms of 14 to 15. Most larger school districts throughout the state have research-supported classroom sizes of 18 to 20 in grades K through two, 18 to 22 in grades three through four, 20 to 25 in grades five through six and 24 to 28 in grades seven through eight.
We would have the ability to share resources across schools where feasible. We would have the ability to innovate the delivery of education by sharing and restructuring what we do now. This could look like creating units/modules that rotate through the schools so that expensive learning materials are not purchased in duplicate, restructuring the grades served in each building (maybe not every building would house preschool for example), merging the entire middle schools into CBMS or just merging the student bodies between the two campuses, creating specialized academies, creating grade specific buildings in some Valley schools to address the declining enrollment and the list goes on as the committee’s brainstorming continues.
We could better provide equal opportunities for all students in the district regardless of town of residence. For example, if we value foreign language instruction, we would provide it to all students in grades K through 12 throughout all schools in the same amount of time and offerings. At the present time, some of our schools have foreign language instruction and some do not.
Schools could still enjoy special events and experiences particular to each school through PTO efforts and so forth. Act 46 is not trying to create identical schools. Think about a unified district such as Burlington. Each of the Burlington schools has its own personality, special events and so on.
It is important to note here that we may locally choose to do none of these things. However, merging these types of ideas could be considered as affordable ways to improve opportunities for our students and to achieve cost savings in the harsh reality of declining enrollment. If we do not merge, we cannot even get to the conversation given the current state statutes and funding formula.
THE FINANCIAL INCENTIVES
We would receive significant financial incentives from the state in the form of an off-the- bottom-line tax rate reduction of 10 cents in the first year, then 8 cents, 6 cents, 4 cents and 2 cents in the following years. Tax rates would still be determined using the existing formula.
We would keep the Small Schools Grant money currently received by Fayston and Moretown, totaling approximately $107,000 as merger grant money indefinitely.
We would be exempt from the actual costs of declining enrollment in future years and continue to fall into the “safe harbor” for phantom students in the calculations indefinitely. Currently, three of our schools fall into this “safe harbor” with Harwood Union being the biggest receiver.
We would be exempt from the cost containment thresholds/spending caps in FY 2018. Each school’s allowable growth is calculated individually. For FY 2017, HUHS, for example, can only raise per pupil spending by 0.98 percent before receiving a double tax dollar-for-dollar penalty. With health care costs rising 7.9 percent and salaries rising 3.75 percent, if expenditures rose on average 3 percent, HUHS would need to cut approximately $800,000 to avoid the penalty. It is expected that the Legislature will reconsider these caps this winter, but if they provide any relief, it will not come in time to help with this winter’s budgets.
Read next week’s piece to learn about the consequences of doing nothing.
Scheffert Nease is the superintendent of the Washington West Supervisory Union.