School Board News: To merge or not to merge, that is the question

This past Sept. 15, Chittenden South Supervisory Union preK-8 school boards selected members to represent union towns in a Merger Study Committee that will consider the merits of merging our union into a unified district. Is it time to replace our common-law-type relationship with something more akin to the formal commitment of marriage?  

While some of us may shrink at the idea of this perceived loss of control, like a good marriage, there may be some profound long-term advantages. As many of you know, this topic has long been on the minds of our local boards. Recent legislation in the form of Act 46 (an act relating to making amendments to education funding, education spending and education governance), however, has placed this work front and center this year, due to potentially significant carrots offered by it. These financial incentives include both study grants (to pay for consultants and legal counsel) and reduced tax rates for up to five years, with greater incentives provided for those school districts that advance to a merger sooner than others (prior to July 1, 2016).

Why the incentive-based state push to merge districts? Looking over the past four years, it’s evident that educational leaders in the state have been taking a long hard look at educational changes needed to address a declining population with growing needs and a persistent widening socioeconomic achievement gap in the midst of an ever-changing, internet-based society. This work has led to several policy changes in the last two years, mostly centering on the idea of creating more personalized, technology-rich learning experiences. Some examples are early college/dual enrollment, universal pre-k, personalized learning plans, learning based standards and other educational quality standards that are causing educators to make significant shifts in practice and thinking to achieve better outcomes. These remarkable changes in how we educate our students have presented a host of implementation challenges, particularly as a result of the fiscal climate in which we live.  

In thinking about how these changes can be implemented across the state equitably, state leaders have concluded that addressing the vast unevenness in community approaches to educational governance is an important way to achieve collective goals. And the differences are vast, wildly varying district populations and land areas, tuitioning options, student/teacher ratios, etc., managed by local boards that are driven by community-specific values. While local control cannot be undervalued, the existing system is prone to a number of inefficiencies and is believed to contribute to statewide problems with educational cost containment, excessive leadership turnover and inequitable student opportunities.

Consolidation can address these concerns through sharing resources (educators, technology, food services, transportation services, custodial services, professional development and special education, etc.), and by reducing time/effort/cost needed to manage multiple boards, as well as alignment of curriculum and training.

Not every community in Vermont is facing the same challenges and so consolidation may look different from one community to the next. CSSU, for example, has historically had remarkable leadership stability, which is critical to planning and advancing initiatives. CSSU communities also already cooperatively work together, for the most part, to coordinate learning and efficiently use resources. There is certainly room, however, to better contain costs and improve educational outcomes.

We hope this article has given you some context for the upcoming work of the Merger Study Committee as they begin to explore whether consolidation under Act 46 can be leveraged to help the CSSU better meet the needs of  all students under a more cost effective funding system. This work must be grounded in an understanding of what our community’s value in local education. We invite you to participate in this ongoing conversation over the course of the year to learn about the opportunities afforded by Act 46 and share your vision and concerns.   

For more information, please see the Agency of Education’s website at http://education.vermont.gov/laws/2015/act-46 and CSSU’s link to study committee activities at http://www.cssu.org/domain/513.

CVU School Board Communications Committee
Lia Cravedi, School Board Director, Hinesburg, lcravedi@uvm.edu
Susan Grasso, Community Member, Shelburne, malbec@comcast.net
Kim Schmitt, School Board Director, Shelburne, kschmitt@cssu.org

UPCOMING COMMUNITY EVENTS AT CVU
Oct. 23-25: The CVU Theatre Program fall musical production of Chicago. Performance dates are 7:30pm on Oct. 23 and 24 and at 2pm on Sun. Oct. 25.  
Nov. 5: Dessert with the principal at 6:30pm.
Nov. 17: CSSU board meeting at 5pm, local boards to follow.

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