New School Year, New Districts — But Act 46 Conversations Continue Around Vermont
Last week, kids zipped up their backpacks, got on buses and headed back to school. For many school districts around the state, it's time to start thinking again about ongoing school district mergers under Act 46.For some districts, consolidation is underway and will likely result in a school closure in the coming years.
Ranier McShane is in first grade at Thatcher Brook Primary School; this year, he said, he hopes to play Legos and learn about dinosaurs. He is one of about 1,900 students in the Harwood Unified Union School District, which is made up of six towns in Washington County.
If Ranier wanted, he could have his first day of first grade at any one of five elementary schools. That's because Harwood is one of the districts around the state voluntarily merging under Act 46.
In the past few years, there have been many meetings, community events, local groups, newspaper articles, student-led conversations and Front Porch Forum posts. That's part of what Act 46 intended, as it hoped to "encourage and support local decisions and actions."
And HUUSD Superintendent Brigid Nease said that's what's happening there.
"Whatever happens here is up to our local taxpayers and our local school boards," Nease said. "We could continue to operate the way we are now and not address the inequities or some of the things that the board has identified as real needs ... or we could make any number of changes along a continuum."
"Whatever happens here is up to our local taxpayers and our local school boards. We could continue to operate the way we are now and not address the inequities or some of the things that the board has identified as real needs ... or we could make any number of changes along a continuum." — Brigid Nease, HUUSD superintendent
And there are more changes coming, due to declining enrollment and the solutions Act 46 hopes to put in place. According to HUUSD School Board Chair Caitlin Hollister, the district's school board has plans to review eight possible consolidation scenarios this fall — and in seven of those models, one of the local elementary schools would close.
"I think we felt a responsibility as a board to consider some models that might include a school closure and and be able to answer questions about, one, what kind of cost savings that would truly provide," Hollister said, "and also if we merged students into different buildings and managed fewer campuses, would we be able to provide greater educational opportunity."
But this prospect of closing a school has been a source of anxiety for some members of the community.
"It just rakes up all kinds of emotions, everything from anger, sadness, grief," Nease said. "And what I've learned is it's just very difficult for adults to come together and look at the data and talk about the what-ifs."
Tammy Kolbe, an associate professor of educational policy at UVM, lives in Warren. She said this area is a microcosm of what is happening statewide where, as of July 1, there are 156 fewer school districts as a result of consolidation.
"There's a balancing act between equalizing opportunities to learn across districts, at the same time while maintaining what's great about Vermont, which is the strong ties between local communities and their schools," Kolbe said.
"There's a balancing act between equalizing opportunities to learn across districts, at the same time while maintaining what's great about Vermont, which is the strong ties between local communities and their schools." — Tammy Kolbe, UVM educational policy professor
Barclay Rappeport, of Waitsfield, was on the town school board before the district merged into one unified board. When she was a fourth grader in upstate New York, her own district merged: "All of a sudden I had about 10, 15 more friends, which was really cool," she recalled.
Rappeport's twin boys are headed to seventh grade at Crossett Brook Middle School this fall. One of her sons, Cooper, said kids don't talk too much about the consolidation process.
"I know it's this whole merged district now and that all the seventh and eighth graders might go to Crossett, but that's all I know," he said.
Cooper is right — all the middle schoolers in the district could end up in one building, but that's one of many things to be decided for certain this fall. The school board will begin to examine the eight different consolidation models in late September, and hopes to approve a final model in mid-November.