December 16, 2017

Local school districts eye consolidation

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Like schools across the state, local school boards are tackling a thorny topic: whether to consolidate.

Act 46, signed into law in June, requires school boards to study how a merger might provide better opportunities for students.

In September, Chittenden South Supervisory Union set up a committee to study the formation of a single pre-K to grade 12 school district that would serve Williston, St. George, Charlotte, Hinesburg and Shelburne with one budget and one board. 

At a Nov. 12 public forum, members of the Williston School Board pointed to several reasons for Act 46. Among them, the rising cost of education and dissatisfaction with property tax levels, inequity in student opportunity and expectations to meet complex education needs.

Williston School Board Chairman Kevin Mara and Williston representative to the Champlain Valley Union High School Board Jeanne Jensen said that if school districts merged, students and parents would see very little change.

“This is really a governance consolidation,” Jensen said. “Directly, I don’t think students or parents would see a dramatic change.”

The study committee is currently sifting through logistics and financial complications required to merge four districts with different assets, debts and buildings. Once it sorts out the details—and makes sure no one town would be taking on an undue financial burden—it can look at whether consolidation would provide educational benefits for students. That’s the real purpose of the conversation, Jensen and Mara said.

“A community deserves to understand if they’re taking on a big liability or not,” Jensen said said. “Right now, we’re working on trying to clear away some of the fog… then we can get down to talking about what is the best governance structure to support learning for kids.”

THE CURRENT PICTURE

Chittenden South Supervisory Union has four pre-kindergarten through grade 8 school districts, each of which creates its own budget. Students then attend Champlain Valley Union High School, which also has its own budget. St. George is an advisory town that sends students primarily to Williston and CVU, and also has its own board.

Approximately 4,000 students and more than 900 employees spend their weekdays in six school buildings. Altogether, budgets total more than $7 million.

The supervisory union has a total of seven boards and 34 board members. The boards develop school budgets, set school policy and approve hiring decisions.

The schools already administer several core services at the supervisory union level, including special education resources, professional development, transportation, food services and more.

WHAT CONSOLIDATION WOULD MEAN

The action would form one school district with one budget, one board and one tax rate. While the district would then get state tax advantages, the taxes would also be averaged among the districts.

Jensen and Mara said the districts could realize some savings.

If districts opt to consolidate before June 2016, they would see a homestead tax rate break starting at 10 cents in the first year, and declining by 2 cents each year for the first 5 years. They would also receive a transition facilitation grant of $150,000.

If towns wait until next year, they receive fewer tax advantages.

There are also costs associated with having so many boards and budgets, such as audits.

Jensen also pointed to “soft savings.” For example, if the supervisory union’s superintendent and chief financial officer only have to report to one board instead of seven, it could free up their time to focus on other tasks.

However, both Jensen and Mara said that while savings are compelling, it’s the potential benefit to students that should be the conversation’s primary focus.

When schools work more closely together, Jensen said, they can quickly see which practices are best.

For example, last year schools in the supervisory union were required to consolidate special education services.

“While all the schools have really excellent special education, some schools do some things better. By having to have a consolidated budget, we all got talking about best practices, and finding ways to do things better because we have to work more closely,” Jensen said. “Those are the kinds of things I would anticipate by having to put one budget together for all the K-8s. Best practices surface more quickly.”

Mara added that merging would also provide some flexibility between the schools for students who may want to attend a different grade school.

“The town borders kind of disappear from that sense,” he said.

Jensen said schools face mounting pressure to deal with hard tasks—high education standards, socially pervasive issues such as opiate addiction, challenges with special education.

“Schools are under a lot of pressure to deal with a lot of different things and that’s the problem we’re trying to solve,” Jensen said. “Money is important and it’s important to taxpayers, but the governance thing could be a way to solve problems, to stop wasting time on things that don’t matter and focus on things that do.”

“We’re faced with lot of challenges,” Mara said. “I don’t think we can solve everything by continuing to stay separate here. We could really work better as a team to address these really large and expensive issues.”

LOCAL CONTROL

One concern committee members have heard is the loss of local control.

“People have a legitimate concern that they won’t have the same level of voice that they do today,” Jensen said. “One of the logistics is how to structure (a merger) so parents still feel they have an influence in their schools.”

Mara said some parents are concerned with preserving the local school culture.

“Nobody wants to stamp that out,” Jensen said. “We want to support that.”

“The reality is that parents have a relationship with their school, they don’t necessarily have a relationship with their board,” she added. “The things boards are responsible for are really important, but as a parent I would never talk to the school board, I would talk to the principal or the teachers or the staff.”

School board meetings are typically minimally attended.

“We don’t have a lot of public turnout at board meetings,” Mara said. “Parents who have concerns are getting them resolved at the schools, and that’s a good thing.”

Still, Mara said the board is taking every angle seriously.

“We understand that there are concerns about local control and concerns about the increased costs of education,” he said. “We’re trying our best to look at ways to address those issues and kind of build a framework for the future.”

MOVING FORWARD

The committee has held public forums in all towns, as well as talked to parent groups.

Mara and Jensen said that, while they won’t have a clear idea until the financials are sorted out, committee members haven’t seen strong reasons against consolidation.

“The law says if we choose not to pursue consolidation, we have to be able to articulate why we can provide a better education by not consolidating,” she said. “If asked that way, the committee is struggling to articulate why we’d be better off not consolidating.”

The committee must submit a report to the Vermont State Board of Education in January. The Board of Education then decides whether to put the question to a public vote, which would likely take place in May.

In order to consolidate, Williston, Shelburne, Hinesburg and Charlotte must vote ‘Yes.’ St. George, as an advisory community, could vote to stay separate and keep its board.

If the article passes, the consolidation would take place at the start of the 2017 school year. If one of the four towns votes against consolidation, the board could work to form a modified district, which would receive fewer tax advantages.

If districts have not taken voluntary action by 2018, the Secretary of Education is required to submit a plan to the State Board of Education.

To provide input to the committee and for more information, visit act46.cssu.org.

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