By Michael Bielawski
When Act 46 passed in 2015, it came with promises to stop out-of-control property taxes while maintaining education quality. Now its critics are calling for a thorough assessment of its implementation, and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns is leading the charge by asking lawmakers to review its progress.
In a draft document forwarded to True North, the league’s 2018 draft Municipal Policy includes this agenda item: “A legislative assessment to determine if Act 46 has resulted in cost reductions in school district budgets and per-pupil expenditures without affecting educational quality.”
Karen Horn, the league’s director of public policy and advocacy, told True North the group is “interested in legislation to be sure we collect data and make it accountable.”
She said it’s not reassuring that in states like Maine and Nebraska, where similar school merger plans have already been implemented, the promises of those plans have fallen short. In some instances, mergers in those states are now being undone.
“There’s some concern that the end result [of Act 46] will just be the power to close small elementary schools,” Horn said.
She said if Vermont started losing schools, the ability of towns to attract new people could suffer, along with property values and tax revenue. For these reasons she said it’s all the more important that lawmakers seek data to hold Act 46 accountable.
As of the end of June, just 60 percent of school children in the state are attending schools that adhere to Act 46 governance criteria. With deadlines looming later this year for final merger proposals, some have been wondering if Act 46 is already failing.
Hazen Union School Board member and outspoken Act 46 critic David Kelley told True North he strongly supports the league’s initiative.
“We need to hold Act 46 accountable and people need genuine data on quality and efficiency,” he said. “We need to know what the consequences are; we need to know how it impacts property values and tax rates. … Is it meeting its goals, or is it failing?”
He said they are going to need more data than just for the first few years, because the first couple of years involve economic incentives for early mergers. Some schools may already be negatively impacted because the money for these incentives is drawn from the state’s Education Fund, meaning it essentially comes from other schools.
Kelley said the repercussions of similar school merger efforts across the nation do not bode well for the prospects of Act 46. “In West Virginia, when these little elementary schools get closed in a small town, the basic result is the smaller kids spend a lot more time on buses,” he said, referencing similar troubles in that state.
Echoing Horn’s assertion, Kelley said this can lead to fewer people buying houses, and so the tax base, property values and communities will suffer. “Young couples with children become much less likely to move into those communities,” he said. “They are not going to move into a community where they have to put their 7- or 8-year-old children on buses to be sent miles out of the community to get to school. If you don’t be careful, you will wind up with communities looking like those old mining towns in Montana.”
Kelley said Act 46 is especially weak at dealing with kids from a disadvantaged background. He said it’s important that smaller public schools are available where more 1-to-1 attention is available.
For example, at Hazen Union, 63 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunches. The statistic is a barometer for the number of kids from disadvantaged situations. “They need more personal attention. Those kids are better off in a small school,” he said. “Given our demographic, small schools are especially valuable.”
Kelley hopes other institutions take a cue from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. “We need to make Act 46 accountable and people need to get genuine data on quality and efficiency,” he said.
David Schoales, a Select Board member and school board member in Brattleboro, told True North that he plans to put the league’s accountability initiative on the agenda for the next Select Board meeting.
“The legislature needs to establish the baseline so we can see what effects the law has had,” Shoales said. “It would be malfeasance to not accurately assess the results of this huge change in governance of our schools. … We have spent hundreds of hours of board and administrative time, and over $20,000 on legal advice, trying to comply with Act 46.”
Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports.