hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

Editorial February - March 2016

 

E D I T O R I A L

Why some school districts might call Vermont’s bluff

 

Here’s one bit of advice for small towns in Vermont that are struggling to figure out how to comply with Act 46, the state’s new school-district consolidation law: Don’t do anything crazy.


The new law, adopted last spring, provides incentives for smaller school districts to join forces and sets a goal of having each district handle a minimum of 900 students by the end of the decade. If districts don’t voluntarily consolidate to achieve this goal, the state will begin to make decisions for them in 2018. Or so it says.


Act 46 represents an effort to curb the state’s ever-growing education costs and taxes, and there’s no question that Vermont is facing some serious challenges. As the state’s population has grayed over the past two decades, its student enrollment has tumbled by nearly 20,000 – or 18 percent. But there are still about the same number of teachers, administrators, school buildings and school districts as there were 20 years ago.


In Act 46, lawmakers set out to streamline the governance of the state’s schools. It seems they figured that reducing the number of districts and school boards would percolate down to administrative and operational efficiencies at the level of individual schools.


That sounds OK in theory, and it clearly will make sense for some of the state’s 280 school districts to merge. Last month, for example, eight towns in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union agreed to combine, reducing its number of school boards from 11 to three.


But the process the new law sets up for merging school districts is cumbersome at best – and almost certain not to fit the circumstances of some individual school districts.


A story in this month’s issue looks in detail at how two area school districts, in Arlington and Sandgate, are grappling with the provisions of Act 46 – and their options for combining with other districts to reach the 900-student threshold.


Sandgate is so small that it doesn’t actually operate any schools. But it still has a school board, and it pays tuition to send its students to the public or private school of their choice. Many of its students go to Arlington’s schools, but even if the two districts merged, they would barely have more than 400 students.


Joining forces with districts over a wider area is more challenging because of the variety of organizational and operating structures among Vermont’s school districts – and because of the state’s preference for merged districts to agree on a unified structure.


People in Sandgate like the flexibility of being a school-choice district. Under current law, if the district merged with others that operate schools, its students might be required to attend the merged district’s schools. So one option Sandgate is considering is merging with the other 18 “tuition-only” districts in Vermont, creating a super-district that would stretch all the way to Essex County, in the state’s northeastern corner. That might satisfy the requirements of Act 46, but does it really make any practical sense?


Arlington, meanwhile, is discussing options that include a merger with three districts in Rutland County – Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland – that all are more than an hour’s drive away. Really, if Arlington just does nothing, it’s hard to believe the state would wind up forcing it into such an unwieldy marriage.


So yes, it makes sense for school districts to join forces to the extent practicable. But if the options are all bad, the best choice might be no action.

February Cartoon

 

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