I read Jim’s last post on Tuesday evening, right before heading over to the Act 46 meeting at Barrett Hall. Jim nailed it regarding the importance of community support for education. Our schools work because our communities are committed to and engaged in their success. We serve on school boards and PTAs. We hold bake sales. We coach sports teams and robotics clubs. We volunteer and vote. We want what’s best for our students.
Our local boards have put in a staggering amount of work charting a course through Act 46 that will work for our schools. Ironically, their efforts actually illustrate what could be sacrificed if these same boards were to be subsumed by a regional school board. Would local support for education erode as accountability was dispersed across a multi-town district? How would voters react when called upon to support school budgets where 75% of the spending is for “other” towns? Who would show up at Barrett Hall on a Tuesday night in mud season?
In the many school board meetings, study groups, and community forums on Act 46 that Jim and I have attended in the last nine months, I have sensed that folks are deeply frustrated that they could be precluded from preserving what best serves their kids. Isn’t there another way?
I believe there is.
If you’re one of the 350 people who recently attended town school meetings in Thetford (March 22nd) and Strafford (March 29th), you heard about what may be an alternative course of action for our towns to comply with Act 46. This course, if we pursue it, has the potential to preserve the best of what we have while encouraging us to share the best of what we have to offer.
The challenge to conform
The big challenge Act 46 presents our little corner of the state is the mandate regarding school district governance structures. The law requires districts to merge to form larger districts. It also mandates that one governance structure prevail across that new district. We have towns with high school choice (Sharon, Tunbridge), a town that designates one high school (Thetford), and a town that’s somewhere in between (Strafford). We have towns that operate middle schools (Strafford, Tunbridge) and towns that tuition their kids to middle school (Thetford, Sharon). We also have two interstate school districts (Dresden/Norwich and Rivendell/Fairlee-West Fairlee). We are being told to abandon our unique school structures for no clear benefit to students or to taxpayers.
Act 46: the fine print
There is an often overlooked clause in Act 46 that would allow for an alternative structure. Section 5 of Act 46 acknowledges that requiring a single governance structure in a merged district “may not be possible or the best model to achieve Vermont’s education goals in all regions of the State. In such situations, a supervisory union composed of multiple member districts, each with its separate school board, can meet the State’s goals, particularly if:”
the member districts collectively consider themselves responsible for the education of all students in the supervisory union from pre-K through 12th grade;
the supervisory union seeks to maximize efficiency and facilitates sharing of resources among member districts;
districts with the same governance structures merge [none of our local towns have the same governance structures, so mergers wouldn’t be required];
the combined average daily membership (ADM) of all member districts is not less than 1,100.
An alternative structure would involve the creation of a new supervisory union and would require the approval of the State Board of Education (SBE). Because an alternative structure is not one of the “preferred” structures under Act 46, alternative structure districts are not eligible for the tax incentives available under the law. You can read more detail about alternative governance structures here.
An Act 46 study group, including representatives from our local school boards, has been meeting for the last six months to consider possible ways to work together to comply with the law. The group is now focused on the kind of alternative structure made possible through Section 5: forming a new supervisory union composed of Tunbridge, Sharon, Strafford, and Thetford. Each town would retain its local board as well as their current governance structure (high school choice or designation; K-6 or K-8 school operation). They would work together under the umbrella of a supervisory union, collaborating in areas such as special education, financial services, transportation, and food service management.
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe has been integral in helping this group explore an alternative structure. She met with us on March 18th when she focused the group on the question, what option works best for the education of your kids? As a follow-up to that meeting, Secretary Holcombe sent this email.
Tunbridge, Sharon, Strafford, and Thetford’s school boards must each agree to move forward in pursuing an alternative structure. Due to a schedule imposed by Act 46 compliance efforts in the White River Valley Supervisory Union, that decision needs to be made in the next three weeks. Hats off to our school boards for continuing to strive for the model that works best for our students.
Sharon Elementary School (via Facebook)