Lawmakers talk school choice and district mergers

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers and members of the public are calling for greater guarantees to preserve school choice.

On Thursday, the House School Choice Caucus called for a clarification of Act 46 — the 2015 school district merger law — as it relates to towns that offer school choice.

“In the long run, we’re seeing Act 46 create a lot of confusion and we’re here today to give a voice to that confusion,” said Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Irasburg.

Unlike many caucuses, the House School Choice Caucus does not reflect a partisan divide based on political affiliation, but based on the size of the community, with nearly all of the caucus members hailing from small towns.

“There’s a real need for leadership in directing our choice towns to keep this tradition and this very important issue with schools,” said Rep. Linda Martin, D-Wolcott.

At the heart of the issue is a decision made last fall by the State Board of Education — the body that approves the merger plans created by local communities — that a newly merged school district cannot contain towns that both offer tuition and operate a school for the grades for which tuition is being offered.

The board cited state law that was on the books long before Act 46; the law prohibits school districts in which some students have school choice while other students within the same district do not. The board ruled a newly formed district must follow this same rule.

Dave Kelley, a member of the Hazen Union School Board and the Executive Committee of the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, noted that, for years, his supervisory union has contained towns that both offer school choice and operate a school.

Kelley argued if it is OK for a supervisory union, it should be OK for a school district.

“The State Board of Education is treading on a lot of people’s dreams,” Kelley said. “Instead of less school choice, we need more school choice.”

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said that when lawmakers debated the legislation that became Act 46, “assurances were made to legislators that school choice towns will be able to merge with operating districts and maintain their school choice.”

“As a result, legislators that supported the bill and their constituents feel betrayed today, as do I,” Tuner said. “Act 46 is being implemented today in a way that is inconsistent with the intent of the law.”

Turner called on the House Education Committee to “fix Act 46 immediately” to allow a newly merged district to both operate a school and offer school choice.

Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairman of the House Education Committee, said it would not be proper to make changes to Act 46 until the law has had a chance to play out.

“To make changes now in the statutes, prematurely, is not the appropriate thing to do,” Sharpe said. “We need to let Act 46 work itself out.”

Sharpe argued the issue is not with Act 46, but with pre-existing statute that precludes tuitioning and operating within the same district.

“We did not change that law with Act 46. That is pre-exisiting law that has been around for quite some time before Act 46,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe also took issue with Turner’s assertion that lawmakers had received assurances Act 46 would allow a newly formed district to both tuition and operate.

“No such assurance was ever made. In fact, there was a recognition in the way we designed Act 46 and left local control in place that these discussions would be difficult and that any change in choice or operating districts would be made by the electorate of the community and not by the state,” Sharpe said.

In an Op-ed issued Thursday, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe argued the decision to give up school choice rests not with the State Board of Education, but with the voters.

“Only the school district, by a vote of the electorate, can decide whether to educate its children by operating a school or paying tuition. This is true under Act 46, as it was before Act 46,” Holcombe wrote.

Holcombe noted that, in 2015, residents in four school districts voted to give up school choice as part of the merger process.

“In these communities, voters came to this conclusion after counting where their ‘choice’ students went to school, and realizing that for the most part, they attended the neighboring public school,” Holcombe wrote. “By voting to partner with their neighbors, these communities now have a voice in school governance and budget.”

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

One thought on “Lawmakers talk school choice and district mergers

  1. Imagine if overnight we didn’t have a local school and our town voted, instead of building a school, we’d like our students to choose a school to attend. Most towns would have 2 or 3 fairly local options or maybe even Burlington if a parent works there. The town pays the tuition to these towns and the children would have options if the school they attend was not a fit for their learning style. School systems currently have this choice all over Vermont which has drawn people to our state. Jason B works from home via computer, could live anywhere in the nation. He chose Vermont and the town of Elmore because of this town’s school choice.
    Here’s what I heard at the 4/7 testimony. Good intentions do not equal good results. Vermont’s power should come from the people, bottom up, not top down. Act 46 goes against this principle claiming vague savings but will result in school closings, school boards moving further away from the parents and up the ladder into administration. Superintendents are for this as they will get to keep their jobs. Small town’s wishes will lose out to the larger towns. Currently Franklin’s small school has a cost per student of $11,200 and with the forced merger will cost 12,500. The difference in the taxes will go to upgrade the infrastructure of the larger town. W. Virginia spent One Billion to merge, saw a 16% increase in local administration costs and schools closing thus children traveling farther, over sometimes dangerous roads resulting in higher bussing/driving costs. W. Virginia regrets this costly mistake.
    There is no such thing as a “normal” kid from a normal home, ready to come to school every day eager to learn. 50% come from low income homes and the struggles which go with that. 20% are in special education programs, 1 in 4 have mental health challenges and 20% have the feeling of hopelessness and are suicidal. These are good kids who often don’t fit into every school. The Compass School these children attend have an almost 100% graduation rate and 90% accepted to college.
    Due to loss of school choice, one district will have 300 students enter it (currently tuitioned out of the district) and will need to build a new High School at an estimated cost of $28 million. (I’d say that’s a low estimate) School boards are being rushed and under immense pressure with a short term financial carrot. Some pressure has bordered on illegal actions.
    David K stated with the loss of tuition students funding 10 of 22 teachers will need to be slashed from Crafts’bury.
    Not at the hearing but from my findings, due to Mr. Shape’s act 46, Mt. Abraham will lose $900,000 from our $13million budget in state funding starting in the year 2018. We cannot make that same amount up in taxes as it will put us over the cost per student threshold so our taxes would need to rise by $1,800,000. just to keep the same level of programs and teachers.
    “A lot of the conversation around school choice is driven by fear and misinformation,” said Sharpe. I do agree with Mr. Sharpe on one thing, there is conversation due to fear. Fear of what the law he crafted will do to costs, lack of local control and do to the students of Vermont’s schools. Misinformed? I think not.
    Valerie Mullin- VT. House Candidate-Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, Starksboro

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