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As Deadline Looms, Schools Still Struggling With Act 46 Consider 'Alternative' Option

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Peacham Elementary School, where the third/fourth grade class has 13 students, is struggling to find a way to merge with other schools.

Vermont's school district consolidation law is at a crossroads. Act 46 was set up in three phases, and the second phase ends July 1. After that, districts that haven't been able to get a merger plan approved by the voters have to put together a so-called alternative structure plan.

And there are still a lot of questions about how these alternative structures will look and how they'll be evaluated by the Secretary of Education.

Act 46 was passed to address Vermont's shrinking student population.

If you look at Peacham Elementary School on a map that shows Act 46 activity, the tiny Northeast Kingdom town is a donut hole, surrounded by other districts that are working on their consolidation plan.

Advocates of the plan question whether tiny schools like Peacham are offering an equitable education, and they say by merging with nearby districts, everyone might benefit.

Willa Kantrowitz is in the fourth grade at Peacham Elementary, and her mom's on the school board.

She says she likes Peacham the way it is.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Willa Kantrowitz is in the fourth grade at Peacham Elementary School. She says she likes the small school.

"Peacham Elementary is small. So, there's only like 60 kids in this school, and I really like it," Kantrowitz says. "Since there's not a lot of kids in each class, we get more one-on-one time, and I really like that. I like it here."

Peacham is one of more than 50 school districts that are considering an alternative governance structure under Act 46.

School choice is a big issue that's getting in the way of a lot of merger plans, but it's not the only thing preventing some districts from embracing the law.

At Marlboro Elementary in southern Vermont, for example, the school would have to give up its middle school, and a vote on Town Meeting Day went down in flames.

And in the smaller districts around East Montpelier, residents didn't want to take on the debt that would come with consolidation.

"It feels like we're being punished for operating the way we do and living where we live." — Margaret Maclean, Peacham resident

Act 46 came with some pretty detailed guidelines — and tax incentives — for the districts that could consolidate.

But the process for writing and submitting an alternative plan is less clear, and there are no tax breaks being offered.

"It feels like we're being punished for operating the way we do and living where we live," says Margaret Maclean, who lives in Peacham and at one time was principal at the elementary school.

She's been working with other people in Peacham to figure out a way to comply with the law.

Credit Ashley Gray
Advocates of Act 46 have expressed concern that tiny schools such as Peacham aren't offering as equitable an education as they would if they merged with neighboring districts.

Maclean says none of the Act 46-ready options worked out particularly well for her town.

"We felt that we had too much to lose through merger," says Maclean. "The merger choices for us just weren't going to provide the opportunities for students that we wanted."

Maclean says these alternative structures are a reality of Vermont's geography and history, and the towns that are pursuing this pathway shouldn't be penalized.

Lawmakers have taken up an education bill that addresses some of the issues facing towns like Peacham, but Maclean says the bill is too rigid and it doesn't give districts the flexibility needed to write these complex plans.

"Places are finding it difficult, not because they don't believe in equity and efficiency and opportunity. They do. Everybody does," Maclean says. "It's just that depending on where you are, your history and your circumstances, it's much more difficult to fit in the boxes, into the constraints that the mechanisms of Act 46 require."

Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont's secretary of education, will be the one going through the alternative structure proposals. She says a lot of the districts that are having the hardest time with Act 46 are in the smallest and most rural towns in the state.

"We have a unique opportunity here to just ask, 'Are we organized in a way that makes us resilient, that makes us strong, that takes care of our kids?'" — Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont Secretary of Education

They're the ones dealing with declining students counts and rising taxes, and the ones who are facing the prospects of closing schools — whether it's through Act 46 or otherwise.

None of those issues are going away, and Holcombe says there will likely be some tough choices to make as Act 46 moves into its final phase.

"You know none of us gets everything that we want," Holcombe says. "We have a unique opportunity here to just ask, are we organized in a way that makes us resilient, that makes us strong, that takes care of our kids? And does so in a way that as communities we can afford many of the things that we care about? And we all have to do our due diligence and just say, 'Are we doing what we should do for our kids in the best way we can?'"

The House Education Committee is now taking up the Senate bill that proposes adjustments to Act 46.

Under the rules as they're written now, districts that want to propose alternative governance structures have to turn those plans in to the education secretary before the end of November.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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