By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer
WINDHAM COUNTY — Declining enrollment in schools statewide and the inequity of opportunities for students prompted the creation of Act 46, the controversial 2015 law that brought about major changes to the way schools are governed.
“Act 46 was a comprehensive, multi-year effort undertaken in response to the idea that Vermont’s education system is overly complex for its size, was inefficient and was not effectively serving Vermont students as well as it could,” Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French told the Reformer in an email. “Local communities, school boards, administrators and the state worked for many years on ways to simplify our system and make it more equitable and more efficient. Some communities built new, locally imagined, unified school districts. Others were created by the Vermont State Board of Education as part of the final phase.”
Local voters approved the formation of River Valleys Unified School District in Dover and Wardsboro; West River Education School District in Brookline Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham; Twin Valley Unified Union District in Wilmington and Whitingham; Southern Valley Unified Union School District, which consolidated elementary school districts in Halifax and Readsboro.
Voters rejected a merger to include Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney districts but the Board of Education ordered that it happen anyway in its final statewide plan for enacting Act 46. The new district is the Windham Southeast School District.
The state also ordered Athens, Grafton and Westminster to merge, forming the Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District.
While Windham votes on the high school portion of budgets presented by the West River district, it has maintained a separate elementary district. Voters in both districts rejected a merger this year that would have forced Windham to fully join the West River district.
Vernon received special legislative approval to opt out of a merger so it could hold onto school choice for high school. The district has been said to send most of its students to Brattleboro Union High School but students also attend Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Mass.
“There was always going to be some places where those bigger partnerships weren’t going to happen,” said Rebecca Holcombe, former state education secretary and gubernatorial candidate.
Holcombe said Act 46 worked differently in different parts of the state. She had been involved in the law’s roll out but left before the final statewide plan was issued.
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The Legislature had written Act 46 and the Vermont Agency of Education implemented it. The hope, Holcombe said, had been to bring neighboring communities together to address declining enrollment and combine resources to put more money into schools rather than administrative costs.
“I think it’s been very successful in some places,” she said. “In other places, it was never going to work as well. But what you see in some of the early mergers where it did work, they’re now continuing to find benefits going forward.”
Holcombe said 65 percent of voters throughout the state supported mergers in their communities.
“I don’t think anyone wants to make this big change but I think some communities realized their financial situation’s pretty acute,” she said. “If they wanted a bright future for their kids with school buildings in town, they needed to do something.”
Holcombe said she understands how difficult it must have been for people when Brattleboro and other districts within the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union were forced to merge. She described mergers as a way to keep schools in communities and provide better services.
“We have to be innovative and creative about how to get more for our kids and our communities in a fiscally constrained future,” she said. “And that is going to require some collaboration. But at the end of the day, I think what makes people want to live in Vermont is the fact that we have strong communities where people know each other and people work together to make sure we’re investing in a bright future for our kids and indirectly our workforce.”
French said he has “tremendous respect for the great work undertaken by Vermonters at every stage of this process.”
“Hard choices needed to be made, and hard choices were made,” he said. “But we are still in the early days of the post-Act 46 environment. Most of these communities are still very new, in their first year or two of operating, and they are still figuring out new partnerships and ways of doing business as larger districts. The work is in the hands of local communities now, who need to work together to take advantage of the opportunities made possible by the larger school districts, and imagine new systems and structures for Vermont education.”
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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