ENOSBURG FALLS — Representatives from the five towns in the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU) – Enosburgh, Richford, Bakersfield, Berkshire and Montgomery – are trying to find the best possible structure for their schools under Act 46, the new state law which encourages school districts to combine into larger districts.
Under the law, schools that do not voluntarily find a partner with which to merge may find themselves merged by the state in 2019 unless they can prove that their current structure provides students with a high quality education in a cost-effective manner.
School districts that merge within a year into the preferred structure, a PreK -12 school district with at least 900 students, qualify for reduced tax rates for five years. Other alternatives offer four years of tax reductions.
In addition, two of FNESU’s schools receive small school grants. Unless they merge in some fashion, those grants will be lost.
“They’re starting with the carrot, and then they’re coming back with the stick,” observed Wallace Steinhour, a committee member from Richford.
The state anticipates the potential savings from greater efficiency and an ability to share resources will be realized after five years, explained superintendent Jay Nichols.
Nichols has long been a supporter of merged school districts, arguing it would make it easier for schools to share resources whether teachers or software programs or musical instruments. That flexibility would benefit students, in his view.
For example, Nichols said that both Enosburg and Richford high schools have Spanish teachers. A combined district could share those teachers with the elementary schools, offering Spanish at all of the schools and enabling the students to acquire greater proficiency.
In addition, because the towns are so spread out in FNESU, some students ride past two other elementary schools each morning before reaching the one they attend. If all the towns shared a school district, students could attend the closest school, explained Nichols.
One of the biggest advantages would be the ability of families that move within the district to keep their children in the same school, according to Nichols. A recent FNESU analysis showed that nearly half of the eighth grade students in the supervisory union had moved at least once, some multiple times, during their school careers. National research has shown that moving just once can set a student back by several months in school.
Roughly half of the students who move are remaining within the supervisory union, but must still change schools when their families do so, said Nichols. In a single unified district students could remain in the school they are currently attending since the schools would be part of a single district.
The question for the FNESU merger committee is which if several possible structures offer the greatest opportunities for students, the most potential cost savings, and has the best chance of being approved by voters.
Andrew Pond, a school board member from Bolton who was part of the successful Chittenden East merger, is providing support to the board through the Vermont School Boards Association.
Pond presented the three board with three options.
The preferred option from the state’s perspective is for all five towns in FNESU to combine into a single district. However, a district cannot both operate a district and offer high school tuition to all students, the Vermont Board of Education recently ruled. Thus, to combine into a single district Berkshire, Bakersfield and Montgomery would have to limit high school choice to either the Richford or Enosburg facilities.
However, there would still be opportunities for students to attend other high schools. Under Vermont law, families can ask the school board for permission to send their student to another school if they feel the other school would best meet the child’s needs.
In addition, schools may set up agreements for swapping students. For example, a unified Franklin Central district might agree to take 60 students from the FNESU district at Bellows Free Academy district, and in exchange 60 students from the Franklin Central district could attend Enosburg or Richford high schools.
Unification would not eliminate school choice.
However, it would eliminate tuition bills. Currently, schools paying high school tuition have no control over tuition. They cannot set tuition rates or control how many students need tuition.
When tuition goes up, boards at the elementary schools are often faced with making cuts at the elementary school in order to offset the tuition hike.
Berkshire taxpayers saw their tax rate jump nine cents this year, primarily because of an increase in high school tuition of $238,500. The budget for the elementary school itself was down $35,000.
On the flip side, a drop in tuition revenue can cause tax increases at high schools.
Small schools can also see large fluctuations in tax rates resulting from small decreases in student populations. In recent years, FNESU schools have had stable school populations, but neighboring towns such as Fairfield have seen large increases in tax rates from small declines in student numbers.
In Bakersfield this year, tax rates increased 6.75 cents, a five percent increase, despite a budget decrease of $172,000. Of that increase, 2.54 cents was the direct result of a decrease in the student count.
Being in a single district can make it possible for towns to stabilize their education tax rates by stabilizing student counts and the cost per pupil for small schools and eliminating the swings which stem from tuition increases and decreases for both sending schools and high schools.
If all five districts combine, their taxpayers would receive 30 cents off of their tax rates, starting with 10 cents the first year and dropping by two cents each year.
In addition, any district whose taxpayers would see a drop in their taxes beyond the incentive would see the full drop all at once. In Bolton, Pond explained, the Chittenden East merger would have dropped tax rates 10 percent, but the tax reductions were phased in. With full unification, any tax decreases could be taken in full from the beginning.
In order to create a unified union, all five towns would have to approve the merger.
Another option for FNESU is to go from five school district to two, an option known as side-by-side.
For example, the two high schools could form one district, and the three PreK-8 schools another. Alternatively, Berkshire, which sends all of its high school students to either Enosburg or Richford, could join the high schools.
Whatever the configuration, all five districts would have to approve it.
With this option, taxpayers in the five districts would be eligible for four years of tax incentives, starting at eight cents and dropping by two cents each year.
Unlike with the unified union, the new districts do not have to have at least 900 students.
FNESU also could present voters with a merger plan in which some communities are deemed necessary and some are deemed advisable.
For example, Berkshire, Enosburgh and Richford could be considered necessary for a new district. All three of those towns would have to approve the merger for it to proceed. Montgomery and Bakersfield would be advisable. If those communities said ‘no,’ the other three could still merge.
Under this scenario, the advisable communities could also choose to hold a second vote to reconsider joining if they wished.
If all five towns voted ‘yes,’ they would receive the full five years of tax incentives. If either or both Montgomery or Bakersfield voted ‘no,’ then the merging towns would only receive only four years.
Aside from the incentives, taxes would not be allowed to drop more than five percent in any town during the first year of the merger.
The committee must sort through the options and decide which will be best for their students.
Before making that decision, committee members asked for more information. “I would suggest we don’t even talk the money part,” said Paul Hatch. He said he would prefer to start with what the advantages would be for students.
Another committee member, Christina Saurez Pratt, of Montgomery, suggested the savings is connected to increased opportunities for students, since savings might be used elsewhere.
At the panel’s next meeting, FNESU staff will present the financial impact of the various merger options, as well as the financial impact of opting not to merge and hoping for the best. They will also present information on how what types of educational opportunities a merger might create for students.
The next meeting will be on Monday, Oct. 5, at 6 p.m. in the Enosburg Falls Junior-Senior High School library.