Education: School Districts Urged to Merge

by Jose Aguayo

STATEWIDE — Vermont’s recently passed Act 46 is a complex law that aims to reshape Vermont’s educational landscape by encouraging district consolidation. As Act 46 takes hold over time it will exert large impacts on the lives of many Vermonters. And many proponents of Act 46 imagine that the new law will offer property tax relief as well. These impacts and many other details of Act 45 were discussed at a media training session at the Vermont Agency of Education on December 16.

While Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe stated that there was no specific mandate in the act to merge districts against a measuring stick of school size, the Agency’s Finance Manager, Brad James, had a slightly different message. He explained that property taxes in a given school district would rise by a penny for every $100 spent above the previous year’s “Cost Containment Per Pupil Threshold” amount. In other words, if student population declines in a a small school district, taxpayers in that district could conceivably be penalized by Act 46.

“To the best of our knowledge, there are currently 23 Supervisory Unions in which districts have formed a 16 V.S.A. § 706b (union school district formation) study committee,” The Bridge was told by Agency of Education Communication Manager Stephanie Brackin on December 23. Nine of these entities mentioned by the Agency have given notice of their intention to pursue an accelerated merger, which involves a vote by the end of June 2016. Brackin added that “Several of the SUs are pursuing other forms of merger (REDs; side-by-sides) with the intention of being operational on July 1, 2016 or July 1, 2017 — so they are within the accelerated merger timeframe but are not technically accelerated mergers.”

Districts are being offered various incentives to ease the financial burden of restructuring, including grants to carry out merger feasibility studies, as well as 10 cents off property taxes for districts that choose to move forward with accelerated mergers and have voter approval by June 30, 2016. This property tax reduction will come down by 2 cents each subsequent year, for a total five-year tax incentive of 30 cents. Districts choosing to merge into a new administrative entity will not be assessed a ‘Cost Containment Per Pupil Threshold’ in the first year of operation.

Secretary Holcombe and Hazen Union School Board Chair David F. Kelley will discuss Act 46 and other critical education issues on Thursday evening, January 14 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in an event at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. The panel discussion will be moderated by Donny Osman who was a member of the Vermont House and served on the House Education Committee. Come join them in the Hayes Room of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier.

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