In order to understand the special school vote on May 2 regarding Act 46, an informational meeting was held on Tuesday, April 25. Please note that LPCTV filmed this meeting and it can be viewed on Comcast TV or at the LPCTV website.
This is a complex issue and much has been written about it. At the end of this post are links for additional resources where you can learn more. You can also e-mail Fred Marin, who is Cavendish Town Elementary School (CTES) Board member and served on the Act 46 committee.
Prior to the start of the meeting, the Cavendish School Board passed three resolutions, in preparation for the Act 46 merger, as follows:
• Transfer the majority of the deeded former Koti Lot to the Town of Cavendish for the Town’s continued use of the land for Water System and other purposes-a 300,000 gallon Town of Cavendish municipal water storage is located on this property. CTES will still be able to use the land for supervised recreational and science trails and nature walks.
• To lease the land underlying the Community Library building to the Cavendish Board of Library Trustees for a period of 99 years with renewal option and provision for continuous right of way for access to the library over School District Property for the sum of one dollar per year.
ª To change the name of the Building for Books account to Town of Cavendish Building for Books Fund. This fund will now use the Town’s tax number. The special fund will continue to support library activities as well as educational opportunities for students.
All of these resolutions are permanent regardless of the town vote on May 2.
State’s Mandate: Vermont’s student population has declined 20% in the last 15 years, resulting in the per student cost increasing education property tax rates. Voters are not only concerned about costs but also the educational opportunities for smaller schools. To address these concerns, Act 46 was passed and became law in 2015.
The essence of the law is that by having larger school districts, operational efficiencies can be maximized (increased flexibility to manage, share and transfer resources, with the goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full time equivalent staff), costs can be reduced or at least held in place, promote transparency and accountability, and there will be equality in the quality and variety of educational opportunity for all students.
The law comes with both carrots and sticks. If the towns merge as mandated, they can continue to benefit from small school grants and receive a tax break the first four years of operations-8%, 6%, 4% and 2%. In addition, by setting up a unified district that is agreed to, the state cannot add or subtract towns to that district.
If towns vote not to merge, on July 1, 2018 the state will assign them to a district without any of the benefits.
Bottom line- The state has mandated the formation of unified school districts and this will happen one way or another.
Background: In the 1960s, Cavendish merged with Chester/Andover to create the Green Mountain Union High School (GMUHS) for students in grades 7-12. The school was built in 1970. Prior to that students were going to Chester or Ludlow for high school, but the town had no say in how their students were being educated.
In 2013, as a result of Act 153, the Windsor South West Supervisory Union, which included Cavendish, Chester/Andover and Flood Brook, merged with the Rutland/Windsor District (Ludlow/Mt. Holly/Plymouth) to form Twin Rivers Supervisory Union (TRSU). Note that Flood Brook opted not to merge instead joining Rutland/Bennington. With the passage of Act 46, the TRSU members, plus the town of Baltimore, started meeting 18 months ago to see how to meet the newest state mandate.
By the fall of 2016, it became clear that the issue of Black River High School (BRHS) was a sticking point. With only 151 students, 25 per grade, and a declining enrollment plus a facility in major need of repairs, various options explored called for the closure of the school. In fact, keeping the school open would have dramatically increased taxes for the other participating towns. Note that Cavendish, Andover, Chester and Baltimore’s per pupil cost are well below that of Ludlow, Mt. Holly and Plymouth.
Mt Holly wanted to be part of the Mill River School District, as it’s much closer for them then GMUHS. However, in order for Mt. Holly to enter into such an agreement, their partnership with Ludlow needs to be dissolved.
Plymouth decided to seek unification with districts in the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, while Ludlow and Mt. Holly are asking their respective town voters to dissolve the educational agreement between the two towns, close BRHS and join Mill River Supervisory Union.
Consequently, the towns of Cavendish, Andover, Baltimore and Chester have moved forward and formed a regional education district (RED) to be called Green Mountain Unified Supervisory District (GMUSD). This is essentially the same structure as the old Windsor Southwest Supervisory Union minus Flood Brook and with the addition of Baltimore.
The State Board of Education approved the proposed GMUSD plan on March 21, 2017 and it is now up to the towns to vote on the formation of the unified district.
What Happens Under the Merger? The six schools (pre K schools in Andover and Chester; Chester-Andover grade school; GMUHS; and CTES) will be supervised by one board and will have one budget. The board would be comprised of six members from Chester, three from Cavendish and one each from Andover and Baltimore. The schools will now be “owned” by the District, with the responsibility of maintaining the schools born by the taxpayers of all the participating towns. In the event a school should be closed, the school, its contents and property revert back to the town.
Does the Town Lose Its School? School assets are not being turned over to the state. When the RED forms, the new Unified District board (on which Cavendish will have 3 of the 11 positions) becomes the legal entity with responsibility for the assets. The current Cavendish Board of Directors ceases to exist. The school, itself, cannot be closed without the consent of the voters of the Town of Cavendish, for a period of at least 4 years after formation of the RED (July, 2022).
Is School Choice Still an Option for Grades 9-12? The state law provides 9-12th grade students an opportunity to go out of district for high school. The law remains unchanged and students still have to apply and be accepted to the high school if they wish to exercise this option.
What About choice for K-8? Currently TRSU allows students to go to other schools within the Supervisory Union. Under the new law, students that are attending another district school e.g. Cavendish students attending BRHS can continue to do so. It will be up to the new GMUSD board to determine in district and/or out of district choice for grades K-8.
If a Town Votes “No:” If Baltimore votes “no,” because it is an advisable town, the other towns can move forward with the GMUSD. If Andover, Cavendish or Chester votes “no,” then the merger is off. Towns who vote “no” can revote based on a petition of 5% of the voters of that town.
If the “no” vote remains, the state will then determine how the redistricting will take place minus any benefits.
Concerns Raised at the Meeting
• Dislike State Interference: More than one person voiced that they did not like the state mandating how we run our schools and forcing us into a district.
• Busing/Forcing Students to Go to Different School: Because one of the objectives of Act 46 is to increase the district level ratio of students to full time equivalent staff, what prohibits students from being bused from Cavendish to Chester to fill a grade? The board responded that Chester/Andover has exceeded max capacity by about 20 students and it was very unlikely this would happen. Further, the board was very concerned about busing and don’t want to see children traveling for long durations, particularly younger children. Joe Fromberger, the representative from Andover noted, in all his years of serving on the GMUHS board, the first and foremost concern was what was best for students.
• Why Wasn’t Black River High School Considered for CTES Students Since it’s Closer: A combination of factors including low enrollment, fewer educational opportunities and outdated facility resulted in the focus being on students going to GMUHS, which has a considerably newer facility, room for expansion, more than double the school population and more opportunities for students.
• The state is continually making changes. In 2013 the TRSU was formed and yet the savings of $300,000 from the merger never seemed to materialize to the taxpayers benefit. It was explained that the reason the supervisory budget did not decrease was because certain costs were shifted from the individual schools (e.g. special education) to the district level.
• GMUSD Would Still be Small: There are only 700 students in the proposed GMUSD. With the area continuing to see a decline in young families moving here, what will happen if that number shrinks to 500 students? Could we be forced to close our school and send students elsewhere? While the GMUSD locks in the towns merged, it is still open to surrounding towns that may wish to join. Grafton, Rockingham and even Ludlow could consider joining.
Vermont has a significant issue with many people, particularly young families, leaving the state. Cavendish in particular has a problem because of its inferior telecommunications. Families and businesses are opting for other towns as a result. The Vermont “exodus” is a statewide problem and it’s going to take more than unified school districts to correct it.
• GMUHS’s Capacity for Absorbing More Students GMUHS was built for 700 students and currently has 320. There is sufficient capacity to expand enrollment and it’s unlikely that there would be a mass influx anytime soon.
• Tax Rate: Tax rates for the unified district were presented to show that Cavendish would experience an initial drop from 1.5153 in FY 2017 to 1.4699 in FY 2019. This would then increase slightly each year so that by FY 2022, the per pupil cost for all schools in the district would be 1.6751
• Senate Bill 122-Act 46 Flexibility Legislation: Currently there is a bill moving through the VT legislature which would provide more ways for districts to combine, some with incentives such as tax breaks and grants; extends some deadlines; and tries to address concerns lawmakers heard at a public hearing this month. The bill would create three new regional education district merger options. It applies to areas where geographic isolation is a problem; where districts don’t align in the grades they operate or tuition; or where there are significantly differing levels of indebtedness between districts. The legislation also extends timelines if voters have turned down a merger proposal or if another district wants to join. The legislation provides schools with transition grants and frees up grant requirements so money can be used for community engagement. Learn more about the legislation as it currently stands as of April 20 at House Committee Puts Own Spin on Act 46 Flexibility
It’s unclear if Cavendish would qualify under the proposed bill. The legislative session is rapidly drawing to a close and there is considerable work that’s needed before the bill can pass.
Take Home Point: Ultimately the “take home point” of the school board and Act 46 committee was pretty straightforward. The state is mandating unification and it’s going to happen regardless of how the voting turns out. If you vote for the GMUSD, things pretty much stay the same for Cavendish students and the town gets some carrots (continue to receive small school grants, have a tax break the first four years of the unified district, lock in partners in the merger and therefore not subjected to changes by the state). If the merger is voted down, the state will assign which district Cavendish will be part of and will not receive the tax benefit.
Voting: The polls-CTES- in Cavendish will be open from 9-7 on May 2. Voters will decide whether they wish to be part of the GMUSD. They will also select three board members to serve on the unified board in the event the GMUSD is voted in. Those running for the unified district school board, all unopposed, are Fred Marin, Doug McBride, and Bruce Pollard
• Two Rivers Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee Report: Obtain a copy from the Cavendish Town Office.