FWSU to Begin Act 46 Unification Study Committee

Act 46, a landmark piece of legislation passed during the last legislative session, has arrived at FWSU. Act 46 is a new law that seeks to address large issues currently facing the Vermont education system. The primary objective of the law are to stabilize rising property taxes, address declining student enrollment and high per-pupil spending.  Vermont has seen a decrease of about 24,000 students in its schools in the past 18 years and staff/student ratios remain among the highest in the nation (FWSU has not seen the dramatic decrease in students that many other districts in Vermont have seen and the per pupil spending in FWSU schools has been among the lowest in Vermont).

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The goal of Act 46, defined by the General Assembly intends to move the State toward sustainable models of education governance. The legislation is designed to encourage and support local decisions and actions that: provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide;

  1. Lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards, adopted as rules by the State Board of Education at the direction of the General Assembly;
  2. Maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff;
  3. Promote transparency and accountability; and
  4. Are delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value.

The Legislature intends all school boards will attend to these goals, while acknowledging that the means to achieve these goals will vary, depending on the particular circumstances of different districts. (16 VSA sec 43 – Act 46. An act relating to making amendments to education funding, education spending, and education governance, 2015).

So what does that actually mean?

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It means the new law will require the state’s 277 school districts to begin the process of redesigning the current governance structures in order to achieve what the state defines as “preferred governance.” A preferred governance structure is a new school district with at least 900 students which will be called Supervisory Districts (SD). Essentially the Supervisory Union structure, established in 1912, will be replaced. The new SD’s will operate in the same manner as a single stand alone district (ex. Burlington, Montpelier, Milton, Colchester), yet will comprise more than one town. The new law asks us to redefine how we view our school community and take a more comprehensive view that all students in our region are our students.

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The laws also calls for all districts to begin conversations/partner with nearby districts (including districts both in and outside of the supervisory union) to make larger school systems of at least 900 pupils. The committee will explore all options both within our current structure and outside of it, to determine what is the best course of action is for the students in our towns.   
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Some current supervisory unions and districts are more naturally aligned to move to a supervisory district than others. Unfortunately FWSU is not one of them. FWSU is comprised of three districts and none of our three districts reaches the magical 900 number alone. We do not share a high school and two of our towns (Georgia and Fletcher) have school choice that allows students from those towns to attend schools throughout Vermont. Fairfax has a pK-12 system that operates its own high school. Any reconfiguration of our current system would have major impacts on one or more of our schools.  EPSCORaward1

Asking districts to merge is not voluntary under Act 46. Districts that merge quickly will see property tax incentives, districts that do not merge by 2018 run the risk of being assigned to a new district by the State Board of Education and will receive no tax incentive. However, schools that have choice like Georgia and Fletcher cannot be made to lose choice by the State Board, that can only be accomplished by a vote of the town electorate.  It is to say the least, confusing.

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Prior to any district even considering consolidation they must undertake a comprehensive study.  At the last set of school board meetings, all three member-district boards in FWSU voted to begin an Act 46 school consolidation study. The newly-formed study committee will convene after each board appoints its members in November and selects a chair of the committee. That committee, comprised of community members and board members, will study our system, study Act 46, engage the community and make a recommendation as to how our schools will be governed in the future. It is completely unclear what that recommendation would be at this time.

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As mentioned above, Act 46 also offers tax incentives to towns that approve a consolidation before July 1, 2016 (aka “accelerated merger”). School boards in FWSU have decided not pursue an accelerated merger. The questions we have to ask and answer in our towns are big and they deserve to be discussed in a thoughtful manner. Lower tax incentives will remain available in each of the following two years should the study committee move in that direction.

(BFA student Devan Borthwick sets up an experiment to measure relative humidity vs photosynthetic rate of Malus sieboldii (flowering crab apple) using a growth chamber, CO2, O2 and humidity Vernier sensors. Samantha King (in the foreground) collects data.)

Finally, it essential to know that any consolidation of school districts would require a town-wide vote by each town. This is not a decision that a school board or committee can make independently. The committee will only recommend what the towns ultimately vote on, if they decide to vote at all. 

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Undoubtedly Act 46 will change the landscape of Vermont school districts. If you have any questions please feel free to contact Ned Kirsch (nkirsch@fwsu.org or 370-3113).

To learn more please visit the Vermont Agency of Education web site. In addition, here are a few recent articles from Vermont addressing Act 46.

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