By Lee J. Kahrs
Last Tuesday, Jan. 19, voters in eight towns overwhelmingly approved a proposal to merge six school districts into two under the state’s Act 46 school consolidation law.
The Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, along with the Barstow School District, proposed a new side-by-side school district, which the state Board of Education approved earlier this month.
“It’s a great day,” said RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins after the votes were counted. “I’m so excited.”
The new Otter Valley Unified Union School District will be a pre-K-12th grade district, where each town will keep its own elementary schools, but there will be elementary school choice. Students will continue to attend 7-12th grade at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon. The OVUU District will operate along side the newly named Barstow Unified Union School District, with residents of Chittenden and Mendon sending pre-K through 8th grade students to Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden and sending high schoolers to the school of their choice.
While it was important that each town approve the merger proposal in order to move forward, Collins said she was surprised by the strong overall approval rate. There was a 78 percent overall approval rate for voters from six towns on the OVUU question, and 98 percent approval from voters in Chittenden and Mendon on the Barstow question.
“I had hoped that every town would approve the proposal,” she said. “But I was surprised by the overwhelming approval. The school boards and the Act 46 Study Committee did an excellent job relaying the information to the communities.”
The breakdown by town is as follows:
Brandon: Yes- 269, No- 87
Goshen: Yes- 30, No- 9
Leicester: Yes- 59, No- 12
Pittsford: Yes- 156, No- 39
Sudbury: Yes- 72, No- 21
Whiting: Yes- 51, No- 16
Chittenden: Yes- 226, No- 2
Mendon: Yes- 121, No- 4
While the goal of the law is to create efficiencies in services and spending across districts, that has already happened in RNeSU. For several years, RNeSU has been a model to other SUs having already consolidated transportation, food service, administration, curriculum and special education across the existing school districts.
Some local taxpayers will see a lower tax rate, but not all. Districts that consolidate and are voter-approved by 2017 will see 8 cents off the local school tax the first year, 6 cents off the second year, 4 cents off the third year, and 2 cents off the fourth and final year.
However, because the budgets will now be commingled, those districts with lower per pupil spending; Brandon will use that 8 cent cut to break even on the town tax rate in the coming tax year, while taxpayers in Sudbury, Leicester and Whiting may see a much-needed drop in the local tax rate.
The approved districts will also continue to receive annual $200,000 Small School grants until 2020, as well as $130,000 in state merger funding.
Once the boards are set (voters also cast votes for school board candidates, see sidebar) and the budgets are approved, elementary school students throughout the new OVUU district could have school choice, which would increase student population at the smaller schools like Sudbury, Whiting and Leicester. If any of those schools continue to see a drop in enrollment, in four years, the OVUU Board, not the state, could vote to close the school with a two-thirds majority vote.
Collins has said she also sees the merger as a chance to level the playing field with students in the district’s smaller schools. The new district opens up the opportunity to create specialized elementary schools, or “magnet schools,” where each school offers a unique discipline, be it science, math, technology, languages, the arts, or some configuration of those areas.
“I think this plan opens up a lot of opportunities for our students to have choice,” Collins said. “We can have equity across the board for all students.”
She cited a sign made by students that she saw outside the Chittenden Town Office on voting day.
“It said, ‘Vote Yes so all students can unlock their potential,’” Collins said. “That about sums it up.”