Between school mergers and splits: How did we get here?

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Enacted by the Vermont legislature in the spring of 2015, Act 46 was designed to improve education opportunities for Vermont students while lowering the cost of providing those opportunities through mergers that would scale up the state’s schools and help create efficiencies.

And that’s more than just a bit contradictory. The law says it supports smalls schools, noting in its first four pages that it’s not the intent of the law to close them. At the same time, if a small school is not part of a state-approved merger by a mandated deadline, it can lose its “small school” grant that keeps many such schools open.

From left, then Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith, David Sharp, chair of the House education committee, which sponsored Act 46 and local House Rep. Oliver Olsen talk about the new law at a forum put on at Flood Brook School in September 2015. All photos Telegraph file photos.

The 64-page statute is complex with lots of incentives and penalties, along with preferred and alternate merger governance structures. But while some districts had only to shake hands on a merger, others faced meshing complicated school governance structures that have evolved either organically and by legislative fiat.

In other words, for well-placed districts with concentrated populations, mergers could be accelerated to reap maximum incentives. But more rural, geographically difficult areas with far-flung schools and challenging topography would have to figure something out or the Agency of Education would do it for them.

Into this maelstrom came the TRSU Act 46 Study Committee in the fall of 2015.  Two Rivers Supervisory Union – only two years old – was the product of an Act 153 merger and is a bona fide Vermont educational oddity. It is, in fact, the only supervisory union in the state with two “union” high schools entering into a legal process that would only allow one.

A study committee worked on merger issues through the fall and winter, then became mired in the governance in the spring. By the fall 2016, the Act 46 consultant had been replaced and the process got a reboot.

During one meeting, GM senior Skylar White spoke for a  ‘Student Voice’ option rather than the RED.

With its rapidly shrinking student population making its future look tenuous, Black River High became the bone of contention. A raft of options and scenarios were considered, from closing the high school and sending all the middle and high school students to Green Mountain Union to establishing an an “International Business and Humanity Academy,” which would be a second campus for a regional high school that would no longer be called Black River.

But keeping the Ludlow building open and staffed would have dramatically hiked property taxes on the four “southwestern” towns and their representatives didn’t think their voters would go for that.

After June 30, 2017, towns that had not held a vote will lose benefits like the small-schools grants and the hold-harmless that limited the tax spike that could result when student populations dipped from year to year. As the deadline to submit a plan for state approval ahead of the warning period for a vote drew closer, representatives of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester decided to opt for a Regional Education District, allowing Ludlow and Mt. Holly to work on their options but also leaving the door open for those towns to join their new district.

‘Mount Holly and Ludlow don’t care to be part of this,’ Bob Herbst told the RED subcommittee during one meeting.

After an angry session or two, the Act 46 sub-committee for Ludlow and Mt. Holly categorically rejected the offer and began exploring a “Section 721” merger with the Mill River Unified Union School District in Clarendon. If Ludlow and Mt. Holly both vote to dissolve their union, close Black River and join Mill River, a vote on whether to accept them will be held in that district’s towns in August.

To pass the RED merger the three “necessary” towns of Andover, Cavendish and Chester must vote yes. If Baltimore votes yes, it will join the district. If it votes no, the district will go forward without that town and Baltimore will have to find another partner or be subject to the state placing it in a district. If any necessary town votes no, the proposal can be re-voted over the summer without incurring any of the penalties for not voting at all.

For extensive coverage of the process from 2015 to the present, click here.

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