Is Vermont Act 46 school merger law working?

Lessons learned from the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union
Published: Oct. 21, 2020 at 6:31 PM EDT
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LEICESTER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s Act 46 is designed to improve educational opportunities and promote equity across the state by creating larger school districts. While the 2015 law has worked for some districts, others have resisted the mergers. Olivia Lyons takes a closer look at why it’s seen as a success in one supervisory union, and what other districts might learn from them.

Eight towns make up the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. Before the Act 46 merger, there were eleven separate school boards. Now, there are only three making decisions for all of the communities. “The number one benefit out of this is opportunity for students," said RNESU Superintendent Jeanne Collins.

Before voters approved the merger in January of 2016, each town had its own school budget with different levels of spending. Spending that some say led to educational inequities in elementary schools and that came to light when students arrived at Otter Valley Union High School.

“Before all of this, I used to be able to tell when they came into the building and when I started having them in class, which schools they had come from, just based on their personalities, their learning, what they knew, what they didn’t know," said Jeff Hull, a parent and teacher at Otter Valley for 22 years.

With multiple elementary schools, parents can choose the best fit for their family. Hull and his wife Stephanie homeschooled two of their four children before the merger. They felt their kids were not receiving the resources they needed at their town school. Now, with school choice, their two youngest go to Neshobe School.

“The fact that Neshobe was already at that level and they were working to bring the other schools up to that level was a big factor for us as well. There were so many more options for them at Neshobe," said Stephanie Hull.

One conversation that emerges in many Act 46 districts is whether to close some elementary schools and consolidate students. That can lead to pushback from parents who want to keep their community schools. Rutland Northeast is also having those conversations. “The board and the communities really don’t want to close schools. In many cases, our small schools are the heart of the community," says Superintendent Collins.

Instead of closing schools, the boards looked at enrollment at three small K-6 schools within miles of each other and re-grouped students by grade level. That’s working for now, but the future of the smallest schools in the district are still in doubt.

School officials say it’s a challenge to convince families to give up their local school or pay for investments in schools in other parts of the supervisory union. Collins says that was the case with a twice-defeated school bond. “'I live in Pittsford, why should I pay for something in Brandon?' And so there still is not that sense of, we’re all one, and if we invest in the schools that we do have and they feed into Otter Valley, it benefits everybody," said Collins.

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