Act 46: finding a commonality among Valley schools

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When it comes to Act 46, “Local boards are going to be very important, because every community is going to have to decide” which path to take, Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) executive committee chair and Waitsfield School Board chair Eve Frankel said last Wednesday, September 9.

The executive committee met the day after Vermont School Board Association (VSBA) executive director Nicole Mace gave a presentation on Vermont’s new law, which will consolidate school districts across the state by 2019.

Act 46 offers three options to transition to a consolidated school district, Mace explained: an accelerated option, a conventional option and a self-assessment option; and last Wednesday the WWSU executive committee moved to follow Act 46 recommendations and get the go-ahead from their local boards to form a study committee to explore what the transition will look like for Washington West.

The motion came after a debriefing of Mace’s presentation and a presentation from WWSU director of finance and operations Michelle Baker who shared graphics showing how tax rates for WWSU towns could change once school districts are consolidated.

Different towns, different effects

Based on those graphics, “everything is a loss” for Warren, WWSU executive committee member and Warren School Board member Rob Rosen said, as a result of the town’s per pupil cost – the lowest in the supervisory union – being averaged with others under Act 46.

All of the towns in the WWSU would have to vote to move forward with the accelerated transition option and when it comes to Warren, “I can’t sell what we’ve got right now,” Rosen said.

While members of the executive committee agreed that school district consolidation will affect each WWSU town differently, Baker’s graphics were preliminary financial models based on “some very basic assumptions that may not hold,” Moretown School Board member Gabe Gilman said, explaining that because of this they’re “very unreliable.”

In looking at per pupil costs across the WWSU, “There are high spenders and there are low spenders,” Gilman said, but in complying with Act 46 it could be possible to take what works in low-spending towns like Warren and apply it to other towns in order to lower per pupil costs.

With Act 46, “It seems like the opportunity to move resources around is a benefit,” WWSU executive committee member and Harwood Union School Board member Garett MacCurtain said.

Finding a common sales pitch

In the end, “All of our kids are going to end up at Harwood,” said MacCurtain, saying that having only one school district could make the transition from each town’s elementary school to the union high school easier for students and help ensure access to diverse educational opportunities as they get older.

Right now, Harwood Union High School is facing major budget cuts in order to avoid double-digit increases in the tax rate. Regardless of the changes that will be inflicted by Act 46, “We can’t afford ourselves now,” WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease said of the school’s current finances. “We’re going to continue to erode our high school if we don’t learn to work together,” she said.

According to Scheffert Nease, Harwood’s educational and extracurricular offerings for students “stagnated some years ago.”

Dying on the vine

“Harwood is dying on the vine,” WWSU executive committee member and Fayston School Board member Doug Mosle said. Just last year, the high school looked into cutting its Latin teacher, a science teacher and the gymnastic team – much to the alarm of the local community.

Harwood found a way to continue to fund those programs for this year, but moving forward the school needs to be able to offer classes in art and music, because “that’s what motivates the kids,” Frankel said, “and those will be the first things to go.”

“If we don’t have a strong high school and people can’t send their kids to it, they’re not going to move to our town,” Waitsfield School Board member Christine Sullivan said.

“The high school is the flagship of the real estate market,” Scheffert Nease echoed.

“I think that’s the sales pitch,” Mosle said, explaining that Harwood – a commonality among all WWSU towns – needs help and could benefit from Act 46.

When it comes to school district consolidation, “I don’t think the question is, will we save money?” Scheffert Nease said. “It’s, will we save enough money?” she said.

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