Reporter Debrief: Act 46 Votes In Addison County Signal Larger Questions About The Law
In 2015, Vermont passed Act 46. The law is designed to make education more equitable and sustainable in the face of declining enrollment — by consolidating school administration.
As a result, small towns across the state merged their school boards to form consolidated districts. Some of these mergers were voluntary, others were mandated by the state.
District consolidation has led to the closures of schools in some of those small towns. That’s pushing more communities toward withdrawing their local school from a merged district, so they can keep it open.
This is currently playing out in Addison County, where three towns are holding votes to leave their merged districts and preserve their local schools.
VPR's Henry Epp spoke with reporter Anna Van Dine. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: What is going on in Addison County right now?
Anna Van Dine: Three towns — Lincoln, Ripton, and Addison — are all seeing very similar stories play out. They all are taking steps to leave their merged districts, because they worry that if they stay, their local schools could be closed in the name of efficiency.
The easiest way to think about this is to look at three votes that are happening. The first one was in the town of Lincoln last Tuesday, Aug. 23. Residents voted by a large margin to withdraw their elementary school from the Mount Abraham Unified District.
The second vote is Aug. 31 in the Addison Central School District, where people are voting on whether or not to approve the town of Ripton’s exit agreement from ACSD.
And then, this fall, people in the town of Addison (not to be confused with the county) are going to be re-voting on whether to withdraw from the Addison Northwest School District.
As you can tell, this is all somewhat complicated, but the bottom line is that at least one town in each of Addison County’s three school districts — all of which consolidated after Act 46 — is taking some kind of step towards withdrawing.
OK, but this is not new or unique though. We first heard about Ripton withdrawing last year, and other schools in other parts of the state are withdrawing from their districts as well, right?
Right. This is exactly what’s interesting about the whole situation; it’s not new and it’s not unique, it’s happening more and more across the state. For example, Halifax and Readsboro were the first towns to have an Act 46 divorce last year, and since then residents in Newbury, Tunbridge, Athens, Westminster, Stowe, Elmore and Weybridge have all to some degree considered withdrawals. And that is by no means an exhaustive list of the towns that have been thinking about this.
And there are a lot of commonalities — people in all these towns are thinking about withdrawal because there’s a chance that their small, local school will be closed or repurposed. And they don’t want that to happen.
I went to Lincoln on the day of their vote last week, and what pretty much everyone said to me was: "We are a small, strong community, and we are worried about what will happen to that if, to save money, our kids go to school in neighboring towns and our elementary school is no longer the epicenter of civic life."
Erin Warnock is one of the people who’s been working to withdraw the Lincoln Community School from the district.
“I grew up here and went to LCS and moved away after college, and chose to come back here with my family because of this community and this school," she said.
And I should note that proponents of Act 46 will say that it wasn't intended to close schools, it was meant to combine and centralize small administrative units to make running a school district more efficient. But that has ultimately resulted in some school consolidation, where small schools are combined into central schools. And some close.
And with declining enrollment and increasing costs, superintendents have to make difficult decisions — Act 46 or not. This is something that Patrick Reen, the superintendent of MAUSD, the district Lincoln just voted to withdraw from, stressed to me.
“My job first and foremost, absolute number one is, is to offer suggestions or make decisions that I think are best for student outcomes," he said. "Sometimes those decisions may be in conflict with what a town thinks is best for the town.”
He says there are three things to focus on: quality of education, the tax rate, and school facilities (such as a small town’s school building). And he says that it’s really only possible to pick two of those.
So back to these withdrawals in Addison County and elsewhere. Why are they even possible?
So as I’ve alluded to, there’s a whole process that a town has to go through: The town has to vote to leave a district, then the other towns in the district have to approve the departure, then it goes to the State Board of Education.
And this is where we encounter a loophole. Essentially, the State Board’s hands are tied in the face of withdrawal proposals. If the town can meet some basic criteria, the board has no choice but to approve their withdrawal from their district.
Oliver Olsen is chair of the State Board of Education, and he says that this loophole is an oversight on the part of the Legislature.
“Looking back on it now, I believe that this piece of the statute, which is very old, was left in place inadvertently," he said.
Olsen thinks the Legislature needs to put some guardrails in place to ensure that small towns striking out on their own don’t put themselves on an unsustainable path.
OK. So both in terms of this loophole, and these schools in Addison County, what comes next?
When it comes to Act 46, the State Board of Education has asked the Legislature to take another look at the law, specifically this loophole. I reached out to some legislators, and while it’s not on the top of their list, it is possible that they’ll look at it in the upcoming session.
As for the Addison County schools, it seems fairly likely that Ripton’s exit agreement will get approved, and it’ll move forward on its own. Lincoln has to get its departure approved by the other towns in its district, and the vote in Addison has yet to be scheduled. There’s also a study happening that could recommend merging two of the three districts themselves in Addison County, which would likely mean further changes there.