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With State Backing, Vermont School Districts Are Exploring Consolidation

By Denisa R. Superville

This post first appeared on the District Dossier blog. 

Faced with declining public school enrollment, high property taxes, and new state incentives, Vermont schools are exploring consolidations.    

In his January budget address, Gov. Peter Shumlin made a strong argument for mergers, citing the realities of the state's shrinking K-12 enrollment and high costs, in taxes, of keeping those districts running independently.

According to Shumlin, the state's K-12 enrollment decreased by 24,000 students—or 20 percent—since 1998, while school staff continued to increase. Vermont had the smallest class sizes in the nation, with about 20 percent of the state's elementary schools having classes with between two and nine children.  And some schools were so small that student data could not be reported in statistically significant ways, according to his prepared remarks.

Shumlin promised to set aside $3 million in construction aid in his budget for schools that explored right-sizing through mergers.

In April, the state legislature passed Act 46, which provides tax breaks and other incentives for school unions and districts that explore consolidation and are merged by 2020.  School districts that consolidate by 2017, for example, and have a minimum daily attendance of 900 students, will receive five years of tax breaks, through decreased equalized homestead property tax rates.

Despite the Vermont's long-standing tradition of local control, many school districts are open to hearing more.

The first test case will come in November, when voters in Essex, Essex Junction, and Westford, which fall under the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union, go to the polls to decide whether to merge their districts under one school board.

The state board of education on Tuesday approved the districts' consolidation plan to form a regional education district, the first under Act 46, which is aimed at improving educational equity while lowering property taxes.

The proposed new school district will have about 3,700 students. Chittenden's superintendent, Judith DeNova, estimated the consolidation could save the districts about $1 million over a five-year period, according to The Burlington Free Press. Those savings, she told the paper, would come primarily from eliminating duplicated services. 

Jill Remick, a spokeswoman for the state education agency, said last week that agency officials had met with half of the state's school unions—31 out of 61—with more meetings lined up this week.

The agency, she said, was expecting five or six accelerated mergers under Act 46, with more to come in the second phase. As of last week, none of the school unions had yet applied for grants available under Act 46 to fund merger studies, but several were expected to do so, Remick said.  

The most recent school union to declare its interest in exploring consolidation was the six-town Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union in Addison and Rutland counties, near the New York-Vermont border.

The school union members voted unanimously last week to form a 14-member committee to study  "the impact and viability" of consolidating into a single school board with one budget, according to AP.

The state must approve the consolidation plans, along with voters in each of the individual towns.

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