Editorial: Act 46: Controversy looms over school consolidation

As the new school year gets under way later this month, the Addison Independent’s editorial discussions will spend a week reviewing the thrust of Act 46 — the law passed in 2015 to consolidate school governance as a response to the changing demographics and diminished number of students in many school districts. While many communities and school districts readily accepted the tax incentives to do so — not to mention a more manageable school governance apparatus for school officials — we’re just now on the cusp of what could be very controversial decisions: that of potentially merging some smaller schools to consolidate with larger ones.

The Addison Independent will host a meeting next Wednesday, Aug. 21, 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Ilsley Library’s community room (downstairs) to discuss the pros and cons of such mergers. Included in that discussion will be the recent decision by the Addison Central School District board to bring sixth-graders throughout the district into the Middlebury Union Middle School (see story Page 1A), which would further diminish the number of students in the district’s seven elementary schools.

This meeting follows four prior meetings that occurred this summer: two on the issue of increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour and adopting a family leave program; and two meetings on the economic viability of the Green New Deal related to the impacts of climate change and what we can do about that locally. (Those latter two meetings drew 31 people to each session and resulted in an ongoing group that will continue those discussions to hopefully produce a series of op-eds on the topic.)

The meeting next Wednesday on Act 46 will just scratch the surface of this issue, but hopefully will provide an opportunity to hear the concerns of area residents, teachers and administrators. To that end, here’s a snapshot of the law and its intent as taken from the Agency of Education’s website:

· Act 46 was enacted in July of 2015. It created three phases of voluntary school district merger and one non-voluntary phase mandated by the State Board of Education and implemented on July 1, 2019. The law was passed in response to, among other factors, a substantial change in the state’s demographics. Over the past 20 years, consistent with trends across the Northeast and rural states generally, Vermont’s student population has shrunk by more than 24 percent. Some school districts now educate fewer than half the students they had 20 years ago.

• Act 46 offered districts a package of phased tax reductions and other transitional assistance in exchange for merging small, usually single-school, single-town school districts, into larger, more sustainable governance units. Many districts chose to take advantage of the voluntary merger phases.

Taking into account earlier legislative programs offering tax rate reductions and transitional assistance for school district mergers, a total of 157 districts came together to create 39 new unified districts – a net reduction of 118 districts and four fewer supervisory unions. As of June 1, 2018, nearly 68 percent of all students are in merged districts or in districts the Legislature has deemed to be at a sustainable scale.

Of the 43 school districts that did not agree to the “voluntary” merger proposals, the Education Secretary recommended mergers for 18 schools, proposed no action with respect to 3 schools to allow current discussions to proceed, and did not recommend mergers for 22 others.

• The stated goal of Act 46 is “to improve education outcomes and equity by creating larger and more efficient school governance structures.” When the impacts of Act 46 are combined with those of predecessor legislation (Act 153 of 2010 and Act 156 of 2012), the results show that 206 districts in 185 towns have formed 50 new union school districts (a reduction of 156) districts.

That is what has occurred. But is all that consolidation of governance helpful and what could it portend?

There are two opposing sides to that question: Critics suggest the outcome of this legislation could be the consolidation of smaller schools, depriving small towns of a key ingredient to a cohesive community and depriving students of the personal attention they get in a small school. Proponents suggest such consolidation might lead to a more cost-effective use of taxpayer funds and produce better student outcomes.

Studies suggest both perspectives have valid points. Next Wednesday’s meeting will focus on some of those perspectives, suggest additional reading material for continued discussion, and hear the concerns and views of area residents first-hand to inform our understanding of the issue and help direct future dialogue. Please join us if you can, or, if you can’t, send your perspectives as a letter to the editor to: angelo@addisonindependent.com.

— Angelo Lynn

 

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100