Act 46: one board and one budget for WWSU schools; are the carrots and sticks big enough?

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Part 2-The Sticks

By Brigid Scheffert Nease

My first writing a few weeks ago 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. Last week’s piece focused mainly on two of three key areas of study: the possible educational opportunities and the incentives. This week’s piece will address the consequences of doing nothing.

The Consequences of Doing Nothing

We would lose the tax 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. In addition, we will pay for these incentives through the education fund for all the towns that merge between now and July 1, 2019.

We would lose the Small School Grants, in excess of $107,000 per year. Moretown and Fayston would be hit with $50,000 plus in lost revenue each.

We would lose the $150,000 AOE grant (less the $20,000 they have already given us to conduct this study) to help transition to the new unified district, only to be forced under the law to merge in FY 2020 into a preferred PreK-12 structure.

We would lose the protection of the hold harmless “phantom” student provision and calculations would be based on our actual declining enrollment, which will likely have a very negative impact.

We would be held to the cost containment thresholds/spending caps in FY 2018. Each school’s allowable growth is calculated individually. For FY 2017, Harwood Union High School (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.

The secretary of education may step in to intervene at the local level to make decisions that were previously decided upon by local boards by FY 2020.

We could be assigned additional schools from other supervisory unions to join our supervisory union (SU) and/or any one of our schools, depending on geography, could be reassigned to a different SU.

We could face years of uncertainty and distraction of all Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) administrators and board members navigating the impact of Act 46 and struggling under cost containment spending penalties, budget cuts year after year, declining enrollment and classes that are just too small.

The information shared to date regarding the incentives and consequences does not take into account any savings realized through new efficiencies, elimination of duplicate work or the restructuring/reconfiguring of schools and/or classrooms.

Conclusion

Vermonters have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to education. Vermont currently spends 5.2 percent of its state product on education – the highest in the nation. All students in the state receive an education paid for from one checkbook at the state level. That’s how the formula works. Our tax rates are dependent (and we are held hostage in some ways) on what every single town chooses to spend to educate its students. Therefore, what we spend locally does not directly correlate to increases or decreases in the property tax rates in our WWSU communities. All towns within and outside of our supervisory unions have a host of different circumstances. Together we have a spending problem. In this state, we can no longer afford our schools, plain and simple. Given our serious declining enrollment statewide, we need to systemically change the way we operate and pay for schools throughout Vermont to achieve any real sustainable savings.

In Vermont, our small, rural schools are getting dangerously small. Did you know that now 70 percent of the school districts in Vermont have fewer than 100 students? These small, rural towns, like three or four of ours, are feeling a particular financial pinch. Some of them have tax rates around $2 and climbing.

Obtaining a successful vote for merger/unification in the six towns of the WWSU will likely depend upon each voter learning, listening and then deciding if the benefits outweigh the losses. The significant differences would be governance by a single school board of directors, replacing the current six boards; a single budget that includes all proposed expenditures and revenues and results in the same school tax rate for every town, only varying by the influence of the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA); and all the existing assets and debts of each school becoming commingled and assigned to the new unified union. Yes, this is a big change that will require fears being allayed.

The loss and concerns around local control are real. However, so much has changed in our public schools over the last 10 years. We really need to ask ourselves what do we really presently control locally and then figure out if that will really change. The things we do control that are dear to us such as artists in residence, ski days, special field trips to Ferry Beach, Button Bay and the Boston Science Museum, the Ski and Skate Sale, the jazz program and ever so much more will likely not change and only can change by the collaboration of parents, board members, staff and administration, just as it always has. Many of the same people will be leading and serving. They all will continue to fight to provide for strong, vibrant and unique schools because that is what is best for all the students who ultimately end up at Harwood together, the taxpayers in our communities and, finally, the property values in our towns.

School closures by one large board are clearly another fear. No school closures are envisioned in this plan. The articles of agreement can specify very clearly if, how and by whose authority any school would close. For example, other towns have stated in their articles that no school will be closed without a unanimous vote of the New Union School District Board and an affirmative vote of the affected town. I believe there is only one reason why any of the WWSU schools would close and that is simply and plainly because there would not be enough students to sustain a healthy learning environment. This will be the case with or without a merger. Honestly, school closure is more likely to happen sooner without a merger if any one school needs to stand alone after losing the small school grant revenue while facing declining enrollment without the “safe harbor” provision.

If, on the other hand, local control becomes largely about what we are going to cut and how we will survive under these pressures of property taxes, what will we ultimately achieve? It could feel, based on circumstances outside of our local control, a bit like the dead right pedestrian who rightfully is in the crosswalk but gets run over anyway.

For the last couple of years, many towns throughout Vermont are feeling such acute budget pressures that they are cutting or limiting music, arts, foreign languages, after-school programs, sports, field trips, busing and the like. I fear that we, in the WWSU, may not be far behind if we do not act.

This law is far from perfect. The game we are forced to play in may be totally unfair. The circumstances may feel totally out of our control and make us feel mad as hell. However, the bottom line is all we can do then is take control of what we have control over as much as possible, work with what we have, play as smart as possible and capture the best for our students and taxpayers. The only other choice is to sit back, watch, let what happens happen and be prepared to live with the uncertain outcome.

Unless, suddenly we receive several hundred students to take us back to a long ago student population level and/or the way we fund education through the Brigham decision changes, without a governance merger, I believe we will find ourselves down the road in four to five years very disappointed with the outcomes of what we will actually be able to provide our students compared to other successful schools throughout the state and seriously dismayed at what has happened to our property values.

Scheffert Nease is the superintendent of the Washington West Supervisory Union.

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