The most contentious phase of Act 46 got underway last Friday with the release of a highly anticipated plan for the 95 school districts that didn’t merge under the 2015 law.
Act 46 was designed to encourage — and, if necessary, force — school districts to form larger, more efficient units. Since it passed, 157 districts have voluntarily merged into 39 new units. Many state officials have deemed the law a success, pointing to anecdotal evidence that mergers have saved money and expanded educational offerings.
But Vermonters in some communities remain staunchly opposed, believing mergers will undermine local governance by replacing school boards with a single, multidistrict board and ultimately result in the closure of small schools.
The 95 districts that did not merge had to submit alternative proposals to the state last December, which the Agency of Education considered before making its recommendations.
The plan, submitted by acting Education Secretary Heather Bouchey, organizes the 95 districts into 43 groups. It recommends that 18 groups merge, three be allowed to pursue voluntary mergers and 22 remain independent because it’s either legally impossible or impracticable. Act 46 prohibits the state from mandating mergers between districts that serve different grades or have different tuition structures.
The State Board of Education will hold several regional meetings before it makes the final decisions by November 30.
The agency's plan acknowledged the pitfalls of a forced approach, noting that “without the commitment of the communities to create a new definition of ‘us,’ potential opportunities will not be realized and unification may be blamed for any encountered difficulties.”
But it also repeatedly emphasized that local opposition — no matter how overwhelming — wasn’t justification for staying solo.
For example, voters in Brattleboro, Guilford, Dummerston and Putney soundly rejected a merger proposal in 2017, but Bouchey is recommending the districts merge anyway.
“I find it extremely upsetting,” said Dummerston School Board chair Kristina Naylor, “that the will of the voters doesn’t matter.”
The report also made clear that the burden of proof was on districts to show that remaining independent would be better for schools than merging: “Absent compelling evidence to the contrary … the secretary defers to the legislature’s determination that a unified district is the structure most likely to meet or exceed the educational and fiscal goals of Act 46.”
Naylor is hoping the state board will show more deference to her community’s concerns. The report, she observed, “read like a legal argument. We’re the defendants and the [agency] is the prosecutor. Now the state board gets to be the judge.”
John Castle, superintendent of the North Country Supervisory Union, had a mixed reaction to the secretary’s plan. It concluded that it wasn’t feasible to ask his entire union, which covers 11 districts and 520 square miles, to merge but did recommend several smaller mergers, including one between the elementary schools in Derby and Holland. Castle, who attended Holland Elementary School in the 1970s, said enrollment has declined from about 90 students when he was there to 25 students today.
“It would be hard for me to say that [the proposed merger] is entirely wacky,” Castle said. “I think what rubs folks the wrong way is, there’s a presumption that somebody from afar knows better than we do, and that we’re just difficult and provincial and don’t want to make tough decisions.”