by Irene Racz
If any group of school districts should have been able to easily merge under Act 46, the state consolidation law passed in 2015, it was thought to be those comprising the Washington Central Supervisory Union. For now, however, a merger remains an elusive goal for the five towns in the union.
“We were always thought to be the perfect model, the cookie cutter, but it doesn’t take into account that it’s hard and that you can’t make this change without talking through all the issues you have,” said Flor Diaz Smith of East Montpelier, chair of the supervisory union’s Act 46 Study Committee.
Those issues proved intractable, and, after nearly two years of study and deliberation, the 11-member committee ended its work on March 8 without being able to agree on a merger proposal.
Act 46 requires individual school districts throughout the state to figure out which other districts are a good match for merger, with the goal of improving educational opportunity and student achievement, maximizing operational efficiencies and containing costs. When districts fail to come up with their own plan, the state can impose one.
The state created a timeline for Act 46 implementation and guidelines for the types of merged structures that would be acceptable. The preferred merger model for supervisory unions like Washington Central Supervisory Union was a single unified district with one budget and one board.
Washington Central Supervisory Union seemed like the perfect candidate for the preferred model, because it currently has:
Six school districts: one each for elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester and one for U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier. U-32 serves students from all five towns plus tuition students from other school districts.
Eight boards: one for each elementary school; one for U-32; the “full board,” which includes all six school boards (although only three members from each board can vote); and a supervisory union executive committee consisting of a single representative from each school board.
Multiple budget processes: each town develops an elementary school budget that includes local expenses plus a share of centralized expenses, such as the superintendent’s office; U-32 develops a budget that is apportioned among the five towns. Both budgets are voted on at each community’s town meeting in March.
Despite its appeal among some committee members, two issues got in the way of movement toward the preferred model. The first involved how to deal with unequal amounts of bonded indebtedness among the districts. The second involved concerns that such a drastic change in governance would tamper with success and take away local control.
All five towns already share U-32’s $12 million in bonded indebtedness on a proportional basis. When it comes to individual elementary districts, however, indebtedness is uneven and therefore difficult to share. Combined, those districts have $15 million in debt, with more than half attributable to East Montpelier alone. Under a shared debt retirement scenario, Berlin and Middlesex would break even but Calais and Worcester would be hard-hit.
Still, some committee members felt that if the governance structure could be resolved — whether it be the state’s preferred model or an alternative that would retain more local control — the towns might be able to figure out a workable solution to the debt problem.
Starting in January, the committee met weekly with two facilitators in an attempt to restart the process after it had bogged down in the fall. Over the course of eight meetings, the facilitators worked to make sure every committee member felt heard and that every possible solution could be discussed.
With state deadlines looming, the committee gave itself until March 8 to reach a decision on governance. The group discussed five possible models, but focused primarily on two:
Instead of “one budget, one board,” Diaz Smith proposed a modification that would retain a single board but create an advisory council at each school in an effort to preserve local input. Under this scenario, debt would stay with each school through an article of agreement.
Alternatively, the group discussed a “federated model,” even though it was unclear whether this approach would meet Act 46 requirements. This model would create a “big board,” much like the existing supervisory union board, to oversee functions that could be centralized and retain five town boards to oversee decisions at the elementary level.
The committee had previously agreed that any decision would require the support of a supermajority of nine of the 11 members. In all, five different proposals went down to defeat on mostly 5-6 votes. Finally, the group agreed that it would prepare a report, summarizing major points of agreement and disagreement, to present to the “full board” at its meeting on March 29.
The committee had been working under a state timeline that would have required residents of all five towns to vote on a merger proposal by July 1 of this year. In lieu of that vote, the districts will now need to submit proposals to the state by Nov. 30 on their intentions to either retain existing structures, form a different structure with other districts or enter into contracts with other districts. If the districts can’t comply with the law, the State Board of Education, on the advice of the education secretary, can impose a governance solution.
To come so close, and yet be so far apart, clearly had an impact on Diaz Smith. She projected optimism right up until the day of the vote on March 8, and was disheartened by the outcome. She said recent staffing upheaval at Rumney Memorial, Middlesex’s elementary school, only added to “the cloud” that seemed to descend on the proceedings.
“We started by saying it’s not about winning but moving forward together,” she said. “But neither side was willing to move and we haven’t done a good job modeling what unified leadership would look like.”
On the other hand, she feels that all the time spent gathering data — and discussing the needs of the districts and their students — hasn’t been for naught. “We have a better understanding that the kids in all five towns are all of our kids and that we have a responsibility to them,” she said.
In an email exchange with Diaz Smith, committee member Scott Thompson of Calais complimented her leadership even as he blasted Act 46.
“Act 46 is diabolically divisive,” he wrote. “We are a group of people who basically share the same goals, values and ironclad commitment to education. We differ only by the tiniest bit in our relative priorities and interests. Then Act 46 comes along and magnifies those tiny differences into deep divisions that drive us into militantly opposing camps. It’s everything a public policy should NOT be.”
Added Content Video Online:
This film by Calais resident Laura Fillbach uses the WCSU experience to explain Act 46 and the dilemma facing school districts trying to comply with it. It has been used in other parts of the state as well as locally. Fillbach’s two children attended Calais Elementary School and went on to study at U-32 Middle & High School. Her son graduated from U-32 in 2015 and is in college; her daughter is completing high school at a boarding school where she is studying dance. Fillbach is pursuing a master of fine arts degree in Emergent Media at Champlain College, where she made the Act 46 film for a documentary film class.