By Gail Callahan
There is curiosity about a Chittenden South Supervisory Union (CSSU) Merger Study Committee, but for the Shelburne Community School (SCS), educators, parents and residents, who gathered at the school for a public Act 46 forum this month, the path to a unified school district is still a distant reality.
Currently, Vermont has 286 school districts, serving close to 90,000 students. Closer to home, CSSU is comprised of five school districts: Shelburne, Williston, St. George, Charlotte and Hinesburg, and has one regional high school, Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU). The CSSU is headed by Superintendent of Schools Elaine Pinckney, has seven school buildings with about 4,000 students enrolled throughout the supervisory union, employs more more than 900 employees, and the combined school district budgets are $70 million, according to SCS school board Chairman Dave Connery.
The forum ran for about an hour and stated Act 46’s goals, outlined tax incentives towns can gain if voters endorse a merger and suggested a possible timeline for report submissions to the State of Vermont.
As designed by the legislature, Act 46 is an opportunity for districts and supervisory unions to unify existing disparate governing structures into sustainable systems of education designed to meet identified state goals, while recognizing and reflecting local priorities.
During a telephone interview in the wake of the meeting, Connery explained how towns could gain the maximum tax incentives under an expedited merger. Voters must give the thumbs up to the merger by June 30, 2016 to be eligible for the maximum tax reductions at the consolidated school level. The first year, 10 cents would be cut from the school portion of a tax bill; the next reduction is 8 cents; the following deduction is 6 cents, the next, 4 cents is lopped off and finally, there’s a cut of 2 cents. Impacts will be first felt in 2018.
With tax incentives stemming from the merger discussed, SCS school board member Bob Finn asked if debt from the recently voter-approved $9.2 million bond for renovations and improvements at the school would be spread across a newly-created district.
“The short answer is ‘yes,’” said Connery. “There’s debt in every district and there’s need in every district.”
The path to a possible merger vote will get a boost next month when the merger committee will draft a report on the issue. In January, local CSSU school boards will seek and gather local input from residents and the panel is expected to finalize its report. In February, the Agency of Education will review the report and the next month will be devoted to receiving feedback from the Agency of Education, seeking additional community dialogue from across CSSU towns, with a final report sent to the State Board of Education. In April, the State Board of Education will review and act on the report.
“I don’t get the sense as chairman of the Shelburne school board that people don’t want this,” Connery said.
Alice Brown of Shelburne said she feels it’s the correct time to move forward with a merger study and vote. At the same time, Brown asked about potential roadblocks to a merger. Connery responded that resident concern about local school control is a stumbling block.
Brown then asked if voters spread across a newly-created unified school district be required to vote on a construction project for a school building in a town in which they don’t live. With Connery responding yes, Brown said, “I can see that being a major problem.”
The Charlotte school board will host its Act 46 public forum along with a budget public hearing Dec. 1 at the school. The budget forum kicks off at 6pm, with the Act 46 public meeting at 7pm.