FCSU: School merger vote dead

Study panel nixes public vote, 5-4

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

The Facts

Owned by

ST. ALBANS — Voters in St. Albans City, St. Albans Town and Fairfield will not vote on a merger of their four school districts,

The public votes, although they held the potential for a savings of $4.6 million in education property taxes over the next five years, were cast aside after study committee members debated the proposed makeup of the new single district.

At last night’s meeting, in a 5-4 vote, the Act 46 study committee opted not to present the articles of agreement for the merger to the State Board of Education. The articles had to be submitted by noon today, or they would miss the deadline for state approval in time for a Town Meeting Day vote.

Because the charge of the committee specified its purpose was to determine the advisability of a merger and present its work to the public in time for a Town Meeting Day vote, the committee’s work is ended.

“I am shocked. I am completely and totally shocked we did not bring this to our communities for a vote,” said Kristina Ellsworth-Spooner, a member of the St. Albans City School (SACS) board and a non-voting member of the committee.

Voting against bringing the merger to voters were all three members of the committee who sit on the St. Albans Town School District board – Paul Bourbeau, Nina Hunsicker and Kerry McCracken Ducolon. Joining them was SACS board member Tayt Brooks and Bellows Free Academy (BFA) school board chair Nilda Gonnella-French.

Voting in favor were the chairs of the SACS and Fairfield School boards, Jim Farr and Mike Malone. Also in favor were Jeff Morrill and Sally Lindberg of the BFA board. They were representing the city and town, respectively.

We vs. I

At an early meeting of the committee, FCSU Superintendent Kevin Dirth said he hoped the committee would begin to think and speak in terms of ‘we,’ ‘us’ and ‘ours,’ rather than ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’

Last night it was clear that hope was in vain.

“I’m still struggling with the benefits for town, for city,” said Hunsicker. “What is Fairfield going to bring to the mix?”

“I feel we’re saving Fairfield,” she said.

There has been general agreement that Fairfield, which has faced large tax rate increases even in years when budgets were cut, had the most to gain from merger, even though it would be giving up high school tuition in favor of the more limited choice offered under Act 129.

Although Fairfield stood to gain the most, there were still gains for the city and town, primarily from stabilizing the equalized per-pupil counts for BFA, the city and town schools.

Under Vermont’s education finance system small changes in student population can mean big swings in tax rates, because the final determinate of tax rates is the cost per pupil. When the number of pupils drops, the per-pupil costs rise.

That is exactly the situation St. Albans Town is in this year, with a drop in pupils leading to an increase in per pupil spending. To stay within the per-pupil spending caps set by the Vermont Legislature last year $240,000 will have to be cut from the St. Albans Town Educational Center (SATEC) budget, according to Dirth.

“It stabilizes your tax rate as much as anyone else’s,” Dirth told Hunsicker.

“When a school has to cut programs because of costs that hurts kids,” said Jim Farr, study committee chair.

“The biggest driver of Act 46 is cost containment,” said Farr. “Our cost per pupil is just not sustainable.”

In addition, when costs are spread over a larger student population their tax impact is reduced. Thus, additional teachers have a lower tax impact in a merged district with 2,700 students than they currently have in the four separate districts.

Student benefits

Reducing the tax impact of expanded opportunities is just one of the benefits of merger for students. Others include the ability for families in Fairfield and St. Albans Town to more easily access SACS autism center and for students to participate in sports, afterschool and summer programs offered at other schools.

For several years, administrators and staff at SACS have worked to draw attention to the harm done to student education by students moving between schools. The Government Accountability Office has determined that just a single move puts a student behind his or her peers, regardless of the family’s socioeconomic status.

With the merger students whose family moved between the city and town – a common occurrence — would be able to remain in their original school.

Gonnella-French, however, said she believed some benefits for students could be achieved under the current structure.

“I was probably the least informed person as we started these discussions,” said Gonnella-French.

“We focused on how this was gonna be good for kids and we gave that up because it’s really all about governance,” said Gonnella-French. Early on the committee did discuss how this would benefit children, with the supervisory union producing a multi-page document on the benefits for students, much of which was originally incorporated into drafts of the committee’s report.

One of the identified benefits for students was the ability to focus more administrator time on improving instruction within the schools and investing resources conserved by eliminating duplication  — multiple audits, multiple contract negotiations, multiple payrolls – into education itself rather than paperwork. Thus, the expectation was governance changes would lead directly to benefits for students.

Farr challenged the notion that some of the benefits for students are achievable under the current model. “Your history is your future,” he said. “We could’ve done all these things, but we didn’t, so we won’t.”

Bourbeau suggested that since the supervisory union hasn’t been able to do some things, such as a common curriculum, why should anyone believe a new district could do them.

“The board will represent everyone in the district,” Farr answered. “We haven’t had that before.”

“I think the governance issue is huge,” he said. The superintendent doesn’t have the ability to direct the principals currently, because if the principal can get the school board to side with the principal, then the superintendent’s hands are tied, he explained.

With the merger, the superintendent would answer to the board and the principals would answer to the superintendent, said Farr.

That change may very well be the source of some of the resistance to the merger, but that wasn’t openly discussed.

Other options

Brooks argued against the merger on the grounds there were other possibilities involving other schools. “I just think our work is incomplete,” he said, suggesting the committee change its charge to look at other options.

“Most other school districts are looking at the conventional model, which allows for more flexibility,” said Brooks. Schools may only consider mergers with the other schools within their supervisory union in the first year, and in some supervisory unions, including Franklin West and Franklin Northwest, their school structures have simply been found too disparate to allow for merger in the first year.

Brooks suggested the committee consider working with other school districts to create a K-12 district consisting of the city, town and BFA, and another K-8 district consisting of Fairfield and, ideally, Georgia. “There are other options available,” said Brooks.

“Our actions of today have implications moving forward,” said Brooks.

Others agreed working with other schools outside of Franklin Central would be a good idea, but disagreed that was a reason to stop this merger. Farr argued such a move would make it less likely other schools would want to work with Franklin Central. Dirth said others would be less interested in working with a group that couldn’t get its own house in order.

“You’re describing it as half a loaf. I see it as a step forward,” Morrill told Brooks, noting any future district would involve Fairfield, the city and the town.

Brooks and Bourbeau argued that an additional dime in tax incentives was not a sufficient reason for moving forward now. Districts approving a merger by July 1, 2016 will receive 30 cents in tax rate reductions over five years. Approval by July 1, 2017 results in 20 cents worth of reductions over four years.

Malone disagreed. “I think I trust the voters in all three towns to make the call on this one,” he said. “For us to say to the voters we’re not going to let you decide on this extra ten cents is hubris, especially after all we’ve done.”

Farr said he agreed about the potential benefits of working with other schools, but added, “I just don’t think killing this tonight is the way to go forward.”

“My biggest concern in putting this forward is I don’t think we have the finished product,” said Bourbeau.

Yet is unclear how much more finished the product could become.

Dirth said, “I’m hearing around the table a few people who are playing a poker game here.”

“Things you think are givens, are not givens,” said Dirth.

Georgia and to a lesser degree Sheldon are both set on continuing to pay tuition for their high school students, said Dirth. BFA will not lose those students, he said.

Brooks’ proposal for a K-8 district alongside a K-12 contains a lot of “what-ifs,” said Dirth.

“Here’s what I know,” said Dirth. “We have an opportunity to have the people we’ve worked with for years get together right now. That’s what we have control over. To hold off because we think the stars will align… that’s a big gamble.”

Mike Deweese, the principal consultant on the merger, said Franklin West, which includes the towns of Fairfax, Fletcher and Georgia, will begin its merger study later this month.

While Georgia could well end up in a K-8 district alongside a K-12 district, the assumption is that any schools moving with merger would transfer to Franklin West, since Georgia would be the larger school in the merger, he said. If Sheldon or Fairfield were to join with Georgia, there is no reason to believe the resulting district would be part of Franklin Central.

Franklin West’s committee would likely not have finished its work until this fall or early next year. Discussions with Georgia couldn’t happen until then, Deweese noted.

Franklin Northeast is pursuing a full merger of Bakersfield, Berkshire, Enosburgh, Montgomery and Richford. That would mean Bakersfield would no longer be available to join a K-8 district with Fairfield.

If that merger is approved by voters, Fairfield might consider joining that district, since that would allow Fairfield to share resources with neighboring K-8 schools while also providing the tax stability of a larger district.

It is unclear what will happen with the schools of Franklin Northwest. They, too, have a study committee and until that committee wraps up its work Sheldon would be available to enter into discussions with Franklin Central schools.

The work of the committee has been supported by $20,000 in grant funding from the state to pay for consultants and legal advice. It is unclear Franklin Central will be able to get any additional grants for a future committee.

School districts failing to approve a merger by 2018 risk having the Vermont Board of Education make the decision for them. In all likelihood that would mean the city, town and BFA would become a single district, while Fairfield would join another K-8 school or schools, probably in another supervisory union.