By Jeanne Jensen,
Karen Maklad, Kevin Mara and Gene McCue
On June 7, voters in the towns of Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, Williston and St. George are asked to vote on the question of merging school governance for the school districts that make up Chittenden South Supervisory Union. If you read this and are puzzled you are likely not alone. In our busy lives of work and home and groceries and soccer games, the issue of school governance is an unlikely priority. But right now, it is an important one.
In 2015, the State Legislature passed what is commonly known as Act 46. Act 46 required the school districts of the state to look into the efficiencies and educational benefits of uniting school districts. In simple terms, unification means moving from seven school boards to one, from seven budgets to one, from five tax rates to one, from six school districts to one. This past September, a working group was formed consisting of members from the five towns of CSSU to answer this question: Would uniting the separate school districts into a single entity be in the best interests of our students and our communities?
After six months and 35 meetings, the answer from the study group was a unanimous “yes.”
The following is a list of three key factors which led to this opinion:
The education we provide to our children will be stronger. Schools will benefit from the flexibility brought about by a united district. Unification will lessen the workload on our school principals for tasks such as purchasing, budgeting and building maintenance and allow them to focus greater attention on instructional leadership. Unification would allow for sharing of staff and materials across town lines, creating more options for students. The future board would have the opportunity to discuss innovative programming by capitalizing on uniquely skilled educators may choose to develop school choice options within the new district.
There are financial and operational efficiencies to be gained through unification. The study committee has conservatively estimated that $1.5M will be saved over the first five years. These savings come from such tangible areas as the cost of administering a single board and a single budget, from having a single financial audit from centralizing procurement. CSSU’s experience from the recent special education consolidation is that even greater efficiencies will be found as we share resources and best practices.
Act 46 provides tax incentives to encourage school districts to vote for unification by July 1 of this year. In the scenario being proposed and voted upon June 7, the state would grant a reduction in our property tax rate for the first five years after unification (beginning in 2018). The reductions would start at $.10 and decrease $.02 a year until they expire. In addition, the state would make available a grant of $150,000.00 to help pay for any transition costs. In Williston, the tax incentives will be somewhat offset by the impact of moving to a single tax rate, but is still estimated to save a homeowner of a $300,000 house over $500 in the first five years. We should consider that Act 46 states that in 2019 the Secretary of Education will have the authority to mandate school governance consolidation for those towns which have not chosen to do this voluntarily, without financial incentives.
CSSU is currently a cohesive group of school districts that work together in many ways. Our students move up from our four local PreK-8 schools to attend CVU together. Many of the most important school services and decisions have already been centralized, such as curriculum development, contract negotiations, policy, financial services, human resources, IT support, special education, professional development and transportation. Financially, 70 percent of our education spending is already consolidated either through the CVU budget or as centralized services as required under state law.
The Tuesday, June 7 vote is by Australian ballot. There will be two questions on the ballot: (a.) a “yes”/“no” vote on Articles of Merger and (b.) electing board members for a consolidated board. If voters approve, the “Champlain Valley School District” would replace the current school districts and the current governance model would be replaced by one that looks similar to what we have now for Champlain Valley Union High School. We strongly encourage voters to visit the website created by our committee: act46.cssu.org for more information
Our towns have some of the best public school systems in Vermont. Vermont is recognized as a leader in high quality public education. We believe that by uniting our districts we can move our school systems from very good to great. Please vote yes on June 7.
Kevin Mara and Karen Maklad serve on the current Williston School District School Board. Jeanne Jensen and Gene McCue are members of the Champlain Valley Union High School School Board.