2017-05-19 / Front Page

School officials band together to explore alternatives under Act 46

WESTMINSTER — School officials from around Vermont vented their frustration Saturday, May 13 with Act 46 at a forum in Westminster, and have created a number of working groups to examine alternative governance structures that can work under the school consolidation law.

The controversial school consolidation law wasn’t the only subject of scrutiny, as some also expressed displeasure with the Vermont School Boards Association’s involvement — or lack thereof — in helping local communities struggling to conform with the law.

Following a forum in which more than 70 attended, representing 20 towns and school districts, attendees divided into working groups to discuss options under Act 46 and how to better advocate for local school boards at the state level.

Grafton School Board member Jack Bryar said Tuesday that the working groups are designed to effectively be “a committee of correspondents to figure out next steps” with regards to consolidation under Act 46.

Margaret MacLean, chair of the Peacham School Act 46 Committee, said that a number of workgroups were formed at Saturday’s forum, with participation from roughly 100 people in some of the focus groups.

“Basically it is a grassroots group of community  members helping each other. Many of them are school board members or Act 46 committee members like me, or interested civilians,” MacLean said in an email Tuesday.

MacLean said that in addition to the forum attendees, an additional 40 are involved with the working groups online.

Bryar said that the forum allowed participants to see the varying circumstances in towns across the state as school districts try to form alternative structures that could work under the law.

Bryar said the law has created divisiveness at the school board level, as board members from different towns involved in any given Supervisory Union debate what sort of structure works best for their respective towns.

“If you have a [failed vote], it really puts the viability of the Supervisory Union at risk” as opposed to staying with the current system and looking at steps toward administrative efficiencies, he said.

“We’ve got people on boards that don’t speak to each other and it’s stupid,” he continued.

According to an Act 46 Alternative Structure Eligibility Worksheet produced by the Vermont Agency of Education, a proposal for an alternative structure must be submitted to the state Board of Education or the Secretary of Education by Nov. 30. The eligibility sheet features spaces in which applying districts can specify an alternative structure either with a surrounding district or through retaining current structure.

A “preferred structure” under the law would be a single K-12 district.

Three of the four town school districts within the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union — Rockingham, Westminster, Athens, and Grafton — were among 40 school districts across the state to vote against a proposed preferred structure in March. Voters in Rockingham were the lone WNESU town to vote for consolidation.

According to data gathered by MacLean from the state Agency of Education, 88 town school districts are currently moving toward alternative governance structure applications, with 27 towns having rejected school consolidation structures at the ballot box.

Bryar said the uncertainty among town school districts — many of which are operating under unique circumstances and structures — about what is allowable under Act 46 stems partially from a lack of advocacy in the statehouse from the VSBA.

“[The VSBA] can’t advocate because it’s never asked what school boards think about anything,” Bryar said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The VSBA is a Montpelier-based private nonprofit membership organization that aims to support public education through “providing a collective voice” for education policy in Vermont, according to the organization website. Member school districts pay dues to the organization, which supports two-thirds of its budget.

Bryar said that in his close to 50 years of school board experience, “we’ve never been called once about what we think about a single issue.”

“What kind of advocacy could they possibly give us?” he said.

Westminster School Board Chair David Major echoed this sentiment in a press release Thursday, stating that a working group will begin formation of a “much needed” advocacy group to replace the VSBA, “which relinquished that role last October when it eliminated school boards as members of the organization.”

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