School Directors Cynthia Lamore, Erika Bailey, Jessica Bugbee, Barbara Malinowski, and Jessica Tatro.
STAMFORD, Vt. — Residents in Stamford are wary of plans that would force their small school into a new governance structure with Readsboro and Halifax.
The state's Act 46, passed in 2015, was designed to encourage consolidations between the state's more than 270 school districts as a way to streamline governance and find cost savings.
"This is not about closing schools, this is about governance structures," said Act 46 consultant Steve Sanborn to a crowded auditorium of skeptical residents on Thursday night. "It can be school union, it can be school boards but it doesn't mean schools."
Sanborn said he'd heard a lot of anger about the education law as he's worked with nine different school districts to understand the impact on their towns and schools. The retired superintendent said it was OK to be angry but he urged the crowd to think about the benefits as well as the cons.
"The idea is to provide equity academically and to create more affordable, sustainable education," he said. "Some unifications were able to streamline but not see lower taxes."
Act 46 is just the latest in a series of educations reforms starting back in 1953 pushing towns to consolidate and offers penalties along with incentives.
"That's different than what we as Vermonters have thought about as local control in running our schools," he said.
For Stamford, the option is to create a unified union with school districts of a like complexion, which would be Readsboro and Halifax, the closest kindergarten to Grade 8 schools and members along with Stamford of the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union. The option comes after more than a year of research by a committee of school officials and community members.
The incentives for merging include a reduction on the homestead tax over four years and a cap that limits increases to 5 percent; retaining small school grants; being held harmless if the population drops 3.5 percent or more; and a $150,000 transition grant (that includes Sanborn's fee).
There's no incentive for pursuing an alternative structure and the school may lose its small school grant. Rejecting Act 46 altogether and exceeding spending limits could mean a tax penalty and assignment by fiat of the secretary of education. Mergers must be OK'ed by voters by July 1; and the secretary of education will begin to merge those who haven't made plans by Nov. 30
The three schools would become one school district, with one board made up of members from each town, and one shared budget.
But residents wondered why Halifax would want to subsidize Stamford students' tuition to McCann Technical School in Massachusetts, and why they should shoulder spikes in special education costs in Readsboro. And they didn't see much chance for cost savings in purchasing since the school's had different suppliers.
"The bigger the system gets, the further we get away from local control," said one frustrated man. One woman described the "incentives" has a gun to the head.
Sanborn said the towns had the options on how they wanted to vote for their representation. They could vote directly in each town or vote for districtwide for all representatives.
WSSU Superintendent Christopher Pratt noted that the schools in the supervisory district were already sharing a lot of costs and administration.
"What we're hoping is that by unifying it's going to help each other out in the communities," he said, but at the same time, people "want to keep school choice and they want to keep the school buildings open to their communities."
Sanborn said there were only three options: unify, find an alternative, or let the state decide.
Two representatives from Clarksburg, Mass., offered an alternative. Clarksburg Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Levanos and Town Administrator Carl McKinney attended the meeting to proffer an invitation to discuss collaborations.
"We're offering to open a conversation with the town of Stamford," McKinney said to applause. "It's up to you folks. We stand ready to be open to you."
Like Stamford, Clarksburg's been dealing with a declining population and rising education costs. The kindergarten-through-Grade 8 school is part of a four-town supervisory union that shares administrators and costs. There have been very informal talks about how the schools could collaborate.
"How do we start?" asked one woman.
Stamford and its proposed partners are expected to take a vote later this spring.
"I personally do not believe we're going to see tremendous tax benefit in these towns," said state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-West Dover. "The opportunity that exists here is when you have larger groups of students you are able to purchase more opportunities for those students without affecting your tax rate ...
"The financial mechanism that we have is flawed, I've been saying this for a long time. This Act 46 is about trying to level out the inequities in Vermont schools."
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