By Rep. KATE WEBB
What’s all this about Act 46 and why have more than 30 school districts filed lawsuits? This issue was front and center last week, and as chair of the House Education Committee, it was an exhausting yet fascinating week.
Act 46 came to life in 2015 to address Vermont’s declining enrollment and resulting inequity in opportunity between school districts. While a large district could offer a variety of advanced placement and elective courses, smaller ones often had trouble providing even basic choices.
Act 46 sought to create larger school governance structures that would provide greater opportunities and outcomes for students, maximize operational efficiencies, and improve transparency at a rate taxpayers could afford. By June 2018, two-thirds of Vermont communities had agreed to merge 157 former districts into 39 unified districts for a net reduction of 118 districts.
“Overall,” the state board indicated in its November report, “Act 46 is proving to be a significant transformative force in the state and is showing signs of constructive success.”
Our own merger is one of them. Merging Shelburne, Charlotte, Hinesburg, Williston, and St. George into the Champlain Valley School District brought forth numerous opportunities. By reducing seven school board meetings to one, our school leaders have more time to focus on a cohesive, coherent system and programming for students. In addition, our families now have school choice between the four pre-K-8 districts, and resources are more easily shared. All schools have a coordinated continuous improvement and professional development plans and over $600,000 can be directly attributed to the merger.
This change has not been without controversy, however. While the merger worked so well for our students and communities, others have not felt such affinity. In November, the State Board of Education reviewed the final third of districts, agreeing that some were exempt from mergers while the remaining would be required to merge. Three lawsuits came forward and are currently before the court. Because the legislature by law is not to engage in issues before the court, representatives from these districts sought instead only to delay implementation.
While a delay at first seemed so simple, it soon became clear that a delay would actually be harmful to those communities tired of the fight and ready to move on. The committee and the secretary agreed that waiting for a preliminary report from the court due in mid-February would be our best choice.
The movement of laws, however is a complex matter involving specific rules and parliamentary procedures that can make one’s head spin. A move to attach a delay amendment to the must-pass Budget Adjustment Act bill brought forth an agreement with Rep. Scheuermann from Stowe. If she removed the amendment from the Budget Adjustment Act bill, she would have a chance for floor debate regardless of the committee position.
In the end, our committee found a compromise, something not always heard of these days. The bill that finally passed out of the House provided no delay for districts clearly ready to merge and a one-year delay for those that had more work to do. This bill is now in the senate, where its fate is unknown.
As I think through this past week, I will remember it as extremely challenging, but also invigorating as it was not an issue that fell along party lines. Republicans, Progressive, Democrats and Independents could vote either way. Urban and rural lines also did not necessarily define the vote. And most importantly, it remained civil throughout the process.