The Act 46 Landscape – Vermont's school consolidation law

March 28, 2016

Notes:

1. Norwich and Rivendell are exempt from the provisions of Act 46 because they are interstate school districts established by acts of congress.

2. While many people in Sharon, Strafford and Thetford have become well versed in Act 46, some confusion remains. This post will provide basic information about the background and process in which our towns and school districts around the state are currently engaged.

3. Neither I nor Tim Briglin voted for Act 46. Nonetheless, we are currently working with each of our school boards to find the best way for our towns to comply while continuing to provide outstanding education for all our students.

 

            Prior to the passage of Act 46, there were 277 separate Vermont school districts, 57 supervisory units, and 13 separate forms of school governance. Many superintendents had so many school boards to support that they were participating in a different school board meeting each weekday evening. Superintendents were often exhausted, and not surprisingly, their average tenure was little better than two years. Statewide student achievement varied greatly, particularly when attainment levels in the smallest rural schools were compared with those with more resources, larger student populations and more diverse curricula. School property taxes were rising to intolerable levels in some districts. The legislature's answer was Act 46, signed into law by Governor Shumlin in May of 2015.

 

Act 46 has certain basic goals:

  • Dramatically decrease the number of administrative units (superintendencies, school boards, etc) to achieve efficiencies that, over time, should decrease bureaucracy, streamline administration, improve implementation, and hopefully reduce costs

  • Align school district governance within new expanded districts in order to coordinate curriculum from kindergarten through grade 12 and provide equal educational opportunities for all students

  • Provide increased learning opportunities at all levels. Sharing resources leading to more diverse student populations, greater variety and more advanced courses, and enable shared best practices among teachers and administrators

  • Force high spending schools to reduce costs, either by increasing student teacher ratios (laying off redundant staff) or achieving administrative efficiencies to drive down per pupil spending.

 

            The law contains financial incentives to encourage school districts to proceed rapidly towards consolidation. Incentives begin at 10 cents off the education property tax rate for those who consolidate this year. Incentives decrease in 2 cent increments over the next 5 years, with decreases corresponding to the length of time it takes schools begin operation under the new regime. Thus those who prove to be fleet of foot are handily rewarded, while those who take much longer are not. As passed, the law also contained significant spending penalties, “caps,” designed to force school districts to dramatically cut spending. Those school districts that are unable to find consolidation “dance partners” by 2018 would, with a few limited exceptions, be forced to consolidate with another newly formed expanded school district.

 

Benefits of Act 46

 

            The goals themselves are generally meritorious. Consolidating supervisory functions should bring about promised administrative efficiencies. Advancing quality curriculum while increasing professional development for teacher should improve student learning, while coordinating purchasing and streamlining administration should bring down costs in the long run. Enabling small rural schools to collaborate and share with one another will provide more diverse student populations, greater course offerings, and possibly enable small schools to remain open and thrive.

 

Fears about Act 46

 

            Many people fear the loss of local control without commensurate reduction in taxes or improved student learning. Others are concerned that parental involvement will be muddied or lost when school districts cover wide areas with populations that do not know each other. Still others fear that promised efficiencies won't materialize and more bureaucracy will result. One big worry is that the State Board of Education will force an unsavory district consolidation upon us.

 

How did we get here?

 

            The squabble over education and property taxes has been going on for many decades and the underpinnings of the current law could be said to date from the Vermont Supreme Court's Brigham decision of 1996. The battle prior to Brigham was between property rich towns that could raise large sums to support their schools and property poor schools that struggled to raise a bare minimum. In Brigham, the Court said that this disparity was unconstitutional. Act 60 and subsequently Act 68 assured that each town could raise the same amount for their school for each penny on the tax rate.  Since then, school spending in property poor communities has tended to increase toward the median, while spending in property rich towns continued to grow. Overall, education spending has increased faster than inflation. As long as property values and incomes were rising (as they were during the real estate boom of the 1990's), school spending could increase without fear of rising property tax bills. That all changed when the housing market collapsed.

 

            In 2011 the legislature commissioned an evaluation of Vermont's education finance system to determine what we were getting for our money. Delivered to the legislature in 2012, the Picus report established what many had suspected, that is that while the property tax mechanisms in Act 68 worked, educational opportunities and outcomes varied greatly, principally between large schools with above average resources on one hand, and small schools where resources were constrained on the other. In smaller schools, small class size and limited course offering led to less educated students who were not on a par with big school students. Declining student population, increasing property tax rates, coupled with the findings of Picus lead to the inevitable conclusion that something had to be done. The result was H.361 of 2015 (which did not pass) and then Act 46 in 2016. Since passage, there have been some significant consolidation successes in some regions. Yet the Act has several failings.

 

The Flaws of Act 46

  • The financial incentives are not equitable and reward the wrong parties. Incentives were intended to speed up conversations about consolidation. However, they are most generous for consolidations where schools are in close proximity to each other, whose populations and governance are already similar to each other and who may have already done some spade work before Act 46 passed. In regions where schools are separated by long distances along twisting winding roads and where governance structures are currently functioning but different, consolidation will be a long and arduous process. These schools will miss out on the most generous financial incentives or may miss out entirely. The over arching travesty is that the incentives are pad out of the Education Fund into which all Vermonters pay. Therefore the losers will be paying to subsidize the winners. Incentives should be awarded for those who have to work the hardest, not the other way around.

  • The above threshold spending penalties, the “caps,” were designed without full consideration of how school districts got to the point of they found themselves when the Act passed. They didn't take into account those costs over which local school boards have no control. Fortunately, the legislature devised a remedy for the current budget cycle. Next year the above threshold spending provisions revert to the underlying law prior to Act 46.

  • The mechanics that some school districts have to pursue in order to comply with consolidation are proving to be cumbersome or even dysfunctional. The Act requires like governance structure to merge with like governance structures. That is K-6 schools are to merge with other K-6 schools, K-8 schools with K-8 schools, etc. The reason has to do with something in the state constitution called the Common Benefits Clause, an explanation of which is beyond the scope of this post. When fully played out in regions that do not readily lend themselves to consolidation, the result might be either:1) gerrymandered expanded districts devoid of cohesion and the kind of community support necessary to sustain them over the long haul, 2) an odd governance construct called a side-by-side, or 3) some other construct of supervisory services. [See Concerns below]

 

            Unfortunately, the time lines laid out in Act 46 could require school districts to choose among bad choices. Were more time available, towns might sort out better ways to proceed. Also more time would allow the legislature to craft necessary changes to the statute that would enable much better relationships to be forged. Each of our towns is very aware of this dilemma. Each has expressed considerable frustration but put is working to put its best foot forward.

 

Concerns about community support for education

 

            When couples move to Vermont to seek fulfilling employment and raise a family they may be drawn by a job, recreational opportunities or quality of life. When they decide to stay, however, they do so because the communities work. Much of that has to do with support for the local schools. It is possible that in some regions, Act 46 will make a mess of that. Where districts are gerrymandered, with schools more than an hour distant apart, and where the future of their schools may be in jeopardy, it is not at all certain that voters will enthusiastically surrender tax dollars in support of education. It is just as likely that, while satisfying the vagaries of Act 46, parents and voters will be increasingly resentful as a result.

 

Moving forward – an opinion

 

            Vermonters need to provide each Vermont child with a high quality education regardless of how large or small the city or town in which he or she lives. Your legislators have an obligation to provide that. Tim Briglin and I are very aware of that obligation and are working in tandem with our towns to see the mission is fulfilled. We are also aware that each of our communities is both concerned and supportive of our local schools. Each has provided quality education for decades.

 

            As we work forward, we should not be confused about the difference between “local control” and local support for education. It has been a long time since towns exercised true local control. Local support, on the other hand, is critically important to primary and secondary education. Local support includes taxpayer input, concern for our children's welfare and also includes how the community at large feels about education. Regardless of concern about rising property taxes and acknowledging that quality education has gone lacking in some regions, we are where we are because everyone has been following the law, not because school boards and voters at town meetings were avoiding or skirting the law.

 

            We should remember that at the end of the day, the object of the exercise is that community members (voters) pass school budgets because they support their schools, quality education for the next generation and because the voters believe it will be delivered at a fair price. Without community support, budgets are unlikely to pass whether they are affordable or not. My personal belief is that if we don't embrace the importance of community support for education and find ways to accommodate and strengthen that support, we will only have ourselves to blame when the train runs off the rails.

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