By Brigid Scheffert Nease, superintendent
On April 19, the State Board of Education approved the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) plan to merge our seven school boards into one. It’s up to each town’s voters to decide if we should move forward with this plan. The WWSU Study Committee, executive board and administration have been meeting twice a month for almost nine months studying Act 46 and its ramifications. Act 46 requires supervisory unions to merge into one board with one budget in what Act 46 calls a "preferred structure" serving grades Pre K-12.
Voters in each town will vote by Australian ballot on June 7. They won’t be voting on Act 46. It’s the law and unlikely to be changed. They will be voting on whether or not to merge our boards into one, based on the information they have been provided by their local school board representatives about the pros and cons. To get the full benefit of the state’s incentives, all six towns must agree to form a Unified Union School District. If one or two towns vote no, the remaining towns will still be merged into a Modified Union School District so long as it has 900 students. Because Waterbury and Duxbury have already merged they must both agree to the plan for it to include the Waterbury-Duxbury School District.
We could spend hours discussing the law based on student opportunities and equity, efficiencies and operational capacity and what sharing students could mean for our towns in the coming years of declining enrollment. The board teams have spent hours discussing what could be possible in the future, from combining middle schools to reconfiguring the elementary grades. We may do none of these things, but having one board and one budget allows this conversation. I believe the upcoming vote will be decided on the issue of reducing or slowing the growth of property taxes.
The tax impact will vary by town and the number of variables in any given year makes the overall savings difficult to forecast. The bottom line is without a merger, taxpayers will pay more. With a merger, taxpayers will pay less. It’s difficult to predict the decisions a new unified board will make, other state spending and what the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) will be. Many of these variables are out of the control of local boards.
We know that the savings include 1) approximately $5.7 million in tax rate reduction over five years. In the first year it is 10 cents, in the second, 8 cents, in the third, 6 cents, in the fourth, 4 cents, and in the fifth, 2 cents; 2) approximately one-third of the benefit occurs in the first year, an equivalent of approximately $1,816,000 based on last year’s numbers; 3) $130K in grant transition money; 4) $100K in efficiency savings for things that are duplicated in our districts; and 5) about $101K in small schools grant money indefinitely. Also, we’ll be exempt from tax penalties if we can’t meet spending target thresholds.
Further savings come from being held harmless from declining enrollment and not having taxes rise above 5 percent regardless of spending. This is of real benefit to our communities, given the bond we will need to bring Harwood up to code. Other, more complex elements also save money on the incentives side. In September 2015 when those threshold targets were published, our schools collectively would have needed to cut approximately $1,179,000 to avoid the double tax penalty, with $800K cut at HUHS. Next year’s spending target thresholds aren’t yet known, but the picture doesn’t look pretty. The state will be short some $35.8 million: $18.8 million in education fund surplus and $17 million in reserve rainy day funds ponied up by local boards to meet the targets this year, both of which artificially softened the tax blow this year. If we are merged, these targets are waived for at least next year.
Merging could bring negative consequences. Change is hard and sometimes uncomfortable. There’s a sense of loss of local control and town identity. Towns have different debt levels, which would be shared in a merger, though our calculations show that it ends up pretty even. The committee addressed many of these challenges in the articles. Not every foreseeable issue has been resolved; it can be unsettling to not have a complete picture of what decisions the new unified board will make.
Act 46 won’t solve the larger issues with the education funding formula, declining enrollment and economic development problems in Vermont. But, it will provide significant tax incentives and safety nets for us to offset whatever lies ahead while Montpelier decides what to do over the next five years.
Our schools are hit harder than many by Vermont’s funding formula. We have little allowable weighting in how our equalized per pupil numbers are counted. Along with continuing declining enrollment, this is a recipe for disaster. We simply cannot afford ourselves now. Over the course of the next FY18 budget cycle, without this merger there will be no status quo to maintain. Merging now and taking advantage of these incentives is the best chance we have to reduce and/or slow the growth of property taxes without cutting core programs and the arts.
Act 46 is the law. Vermont has chosen to pay for all schools out of one checkbook. Even though many may have concerns about consolidation, the tax incentives are too great to ignore. I hope that on June 7, voters will have weighed the pros and cons and do what is best for our six districts.
The wwsu.org website includes the Articles of Agreement, which spell out specifics particular to our schools and the narrative Study Committee Report with appendices, including financial calculations and projections and a summary of all the individual schools' assets, debts, surpluses and deficits. All of our meetings have been recorded by Mad River Valley TV Channel 44 and can be viewed online. The WWSU Study Committee and executive board have held three public forums. A fourth is slated for May 23 at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield at 6:30 p.m. A public hearing will be held in each town within 10 days prior to the vote.
I encourage taxpayers to become informed, get their questions answered, attend a forum or public hearing and come out to vote. If we don’t take advantage of the incentives and merge now, we will be merged by the state in 2019, having lost significant savings.