When the legislature enacted Act 46, they were responding to public outcry about escalating education costs and the desire for local districts to determine their own path forward with the merger of education governance structures. Now the clock is ticking and school governance mergers are going to happen in Vermont in the coming months.
The window of opportunity for local districts to determine their own fate is limited. As a result of the Act 46 deadlines and tax incentives, there is considerable local movement toward merger discussions.
How Could School Choice be Affected?
There are still significant questions surrounding school hoice and access to Independent Schools when districts with disparate educational options create plans toward merger. Currently Vermont law does not provide for a district to offer school choice, and operate a school within the same district. So what happens when two or more districts attempt to merge, some with choice, some with schools?
The State Board of Education was expected to weigh in with guidance during a recent meeting, but they pushed the issue to the Governance Committee for further study. Board Chair Stephen Morse was hopeful that guidance from that committee will emerge in September.
Morse said, “What we are trying to do is create a possibility of a school district to be formed where every student within that school district would have equal educational opportunities,” Morse said. “I take the opinion that if the people within an area come to the conclusion that that is what they want to do, we ought to honor that suggestion.”
Mill Moore, Executive Director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association said, “The matter was discussed quite extensively last week in the SBE's Governance Committee, but the committee's recommendation was tabled at the SBE meeting. In effect, this is a green light to creative ideas for merger thinking.” In regard to limiting school choice Moore said, "Making that exclusion would create a deep political wound. It would be a long-remembered and perhaps bitterly contested decision."
The State Board of Education recently approved the first merger under Act 46, by the Essex and Westford districts, in which the Westford district has chosen to give up its current school choice options. As these very important local decisions are being made, we urge you to take part in your community’s conversation and planning. Citizens in Elmore have created a website to help share information and explore all options for their district. Their work provides a helpful information sharing model for other communities.