School district merger law to be reviewed

ESSEX JUNCTION — State officials are celebrating the first school district merger under the state’s new law, while acknowledging the law will likely be “tweaked’” during the upcoming session.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and others gathered Tuesday at Essex High School to recognize the creation of a new school district, the first under Act 46, which seeks to create larger and more efficient school districts.

“This community is proving that Act 46 is working,” Shumlin said of the merger approved last week by the residents of Essex, Essex Junction and Westford.

Under the terms of the merger, the three communities — which together operate 10 schools — will streamline their governance structure from five school boards to one, and expect to save $1 million a year during the next five years, a modest amount considering the current combined annual budgets total $54 million.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Per the provisions of Act 46, the three communities will receive a 10-cent break on their property taxes next year, followed by an eight-cent tax break in year two, a six-cent break in year three, a four-cent break in year four and a two-cent break in year five.

Echoing lawmakers during the last legislative session, Shumlin noted the goals of Act 46 are not just financial, but intended to stop the death spiral many small schools are experiencing as they continue to cut programs to remain financially viable.

“We often hear folks say, ‘You know, Montpelier is standing in the way of local control, and Act 46 is an example of that,’” Shumlin said. “In too many of our small schools, local control for those boards is about what sort of opportunities do we take away from our students this year on order to ensure that property taxes don’t go up faster than they otherwise would have.”

Smith spoke of Act 46 in relation to the 1997 Vermont Supreme Court Decision that led to the creation of Act 60, which established a single, statewide education fund.

“I believe that this is the next step to fulfill the promise that we made when we passed Act 60 and Act 68 to the children of Vermont, and that promise was that we will give you an equal opportunity no matter you live for an excellent education,” Smith said.

House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith

While the residents of Essex, Essex Junction and Westford approved their merger proposal, Smith’s own community of Morristown – along with the town of Elmore – defeated a proposal to merge the two districts. The defeat, Smith said, is proof of the control local voters have over the merger process.

“While it passed here, it didn’t pass in Elmore and Morristown, and that reflected the fact we needed to go back to the table and address some of those concerns,” Smith said.

Among the concerns was the possible loss of school choice, because, under current law, a school district can either offer tuition or operate a school, but cannot do both. In the case of the most recent merger, school choice in Westford for students at the high school level will be phased out during the next four years.

The issue of school choice is likely to come up during the next legislative session. In late October, House and Senate Republicans sent a letter to the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education asking the board to reverse its interpretation of state law that would prohibit a newly formed district from operating a school and offering tuition. Also, the House Republican Caucus has pledged to change existing law to allow a district to do both.

Smith said that while on the campaign trail — he is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2016 — he has heard from people who are concerned with a provision of Act 46 that establishes spending thresholds for local school budgets, and penalties for exceeding them.

Smith said it’s too early to know which direction the legislature will take as it revisits Act 46.

Shumlin spoke of the need to revisit the spending threshold provision.

“There isn’t a Vermonter out there who doesn’t want to see education spending capped, because property taxes are killing us,” Shumlin said. “But, thresholds can be a blunt instrument, and when we passed this we all agreed, if they didn’t make a lot of sense, we’d come back and work on them. There is broad consensus the thresholds should be looked at and should be tweaked.”

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