There are a number of committees meeting right now to consider whether or not consolidating school districts is the right thing to do for their communities.
Why are they doing this? It is due to Act 46, the landmark education bill passed in 2015 in the Vermont Legislature, and signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin. The bill encourages all districts in Vermont to consider consolidating into larger units. That consolidation will lead to greater opportunity for Vermont primary and secondary students, according to supporters of the law. It will also grant tax breaks and other financial incentives for towns and districts that decide merging with another district is in the best interest of the community. While those perceived benefits of Act 46 may be debatable, there is no doubt that many hours are being spent by volunteers discussing and debating whether or not Act 46 mergers are right for their communities.
Locally, we have committees looking at a variety of school district mergers. Most of these are what the Vermont Agency of Education refers to as “side-by-side” mergers. In the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union, Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford are one group. Those three towns currently offer school choice and would continue to in a new district. They would parallel the already completed merger of Wilmington and Whitingham into the kindergarten through 12th grade Twin Valley district.
In Windham Central, Dover, Wardsboro, and Marlboro are considering another choice district, and would stand alongside the Leland & Gray K-12 towns of Jamaica, Windham, Townshend, Newfane, and Brookline.
The reason we bring all this up now is because there are a series of public meetings taking place over the next three weeks that are critical to the outcome of these groups, and may be critical to the future of local schools.
The Dover, Wardsboro, and Marlboro group will be meeting for the next three Thursdays, beginning October 27 at Dover School. On November 3 the group will meet at Wardsboro School and Marlboro Elementary School on November 10. All of the meetings are at 6:30 pm. These meetings are very important, as the group will be finalizing the merger plans for approval from the AOE and State Board of Education.
The five Windham Southwest Supervisory towns will be meeting on November 3 at Twin Valley Middle High School at 5:30 pm with representatives from the AOE to talk about why the plans developed by the WSWSU towns were not approved by the agency, and what steps have to be taken to gain that approval.
If anyone wants to have input on these plans, these are the meetings to do so. It’s a critical time in the planning process, and waiting until just before the votes are taken in March will be too late. For those who care about the future of local schools, the time to get involved is now.
Getting back to that November 8 election, some may think the outcome will greatly determine what happens with Act 46 in the future. That very well may be the case, as regardless of who is the next governor of Vermont, there will likely be changes to government officials and appointees, including at the AOE and on the board of education. But the current reality is that the law requires school districts to go through this process. So, until any change takes place, the best course of action is to follow the process and work withing the current requirements.
Act 46 is a transformational law. We’ve said that many times. How those transformations take place, and whether those changes are for the best, depend in large part on the work being done right now. Our local communities may be undergoing some dramatic changes in how their schools are managed. The time to speak up about those changes is now.