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In Final Push To Meet Act 46 Deadline, School Districts Work On Alternative Plans

Kristina Naylor, of Dummerston, talks with Brattleboro school board member David Scholaes at an Act 46 Alternative Governance Structure meeting last year.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Kristina Naylor, of Dummerston, talks with Brattleboro school board member David Scholaes at a recent Act 46 Alternative Governance Structure meeting.

Vermont's school district consolidation law was never supposed to work in every single community.

About 25 percent of the school districts in Vermont will be working on their so-called alternative governance structures to meet the requirements of Act 46.

Districts that have not been able to merge with nearby towns have to write an alternative governance structure plan and in about 80 school districts either voters rejected their merger plans, or the local school boards never put proposals together.

Act 46 encourages school districts to merge under a single board, and when those mergers are approved by the voters local school boards disband and groups of schools are administered under a single board.

Under an alternative governance structure school districts are allowed to retain their full boards, but those single districts have to prove that they will meet the goals of Act 46, which include educational equity among the schools in a district, operational efficiencies, transparency and cost containment.

In Windham Southeast Supervisory Union voters in Brattleboro, Guilford, Dummerston and Putney all rejected their consolidation plan on Nov. 7.

After the vote representatives from some of those towns met to talk about writing alternative governance structures that would help each of the schools in the supervisory union.

"There is a paradigm shift that we all have to make  sure we are talking about, which is we are now thinking about the education of all of the students here," said Dummerston school board member Kristina Naylor. "It is efficient thinking of us. And it is child centered thinking of us, even if sometimes it means money is moving in a way that might not be in your own pocket."

The alternative plans will look different in each district.

In some parts of the state, single school districts, who are surrounded my merged districts, will write alternative plans on their own.

In southeast Vermont, Naylor is trying to help each of the districts write their own plan that would include keeping their own school board, while at the same time working together to meet the goals of the school district consolidation law.

School districts have until Dec. 26 to get their alternative plans to the State Board of Education.

"There is a paradigm shift that we all have to make sure we are talking about, which is we are now thinking about the education of all of the students here." — Kristina Naylor, Dummerston school board

After that the school boards will be able to work with the Secretary of Education and the State Board, and make changes to their plans if there are questions to address.

Finally it's up to the State Board of Education to create the statewide plan, which could include merging districts to the extent necessary to meet the educational and financial goals of Act 46.

Margaret MacLean lives in Peacham, and works with Vermonters for Schools and Communities, a statewide advocacy group that's been critical of Act 46.

MacLean says groups like the one here in Windham Southeast ARE playing by the rules, and she hopes the State Board of Education accepts the alternative plans that come before them.

"The legislators expected that not everyone would find that merger was the right way to meet the goals of the law," says MacLean. "The Legislature built this process into the law, and the state should give these communities evenhanded consideration."

The Secretary of Education will take all of the alternative plans and decide if they  should be allowed to move forward.

She is expected to have her recommendations on the statewide school district merger plan before June 1.

The State Board will review the secretary's plan, and then accept comments. The board is expected to then finalize the statewide plan before the end of November 2018.

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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