Vt. school districts to deal with new challenges following Act 46 mergers

Published: Aug. 26, 2019 at 8:21 AM EDT
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Vermont's secretary of education says Act 46 is mostly complete but there's still more work to be done with the 2015 law that was designed to cut costs and expand opportunities for students by consolidating school districts.

"I think previously there were local school boards in many cases and in many communities -- that was the forum where you would go to express their concerns. So, I think the newly merged districts have to create new strategies that all the voices are heard in their districts," said Vermont Education Secretary Daniel French.

French says school districts will now have some tough decisions to make with Act 46, including whether to literally merge schools.

Since consolidating districts in 2010, 206 districts in 185 towns have come together to form 50 new union school districts. That's a reduction of 156 districts.

The Addison Central School District is already considering merging elementary schools.

"Having special services available all day long for kids-- a nurse, behavioral interventionist, guidance counselors-- it's a lot harder to provide those services in a smaller elementary school," said Peter Conlon, the chair of the Addison Central School District Board.

Conlon says his district has seen declining enrollments over the years, something Secretary French has seen all across the state.

"Looking back now, we look at school enrollments as being a canary in a coal mine for what is now a larger demographic challenge for our state and for northern New England," said French. "Those challenges aren't going away. So I think in many cases, I think Act 46 has set up regions in Vermont to struggle with these issues better than they were before."

The law has been met with some considerable pushback, including a lawsuit, now going to the Vermont Supreme Court, from 33 school districts that don't want to merge.

"When boards can get to the concept of thinking about these being all our kids, not just the kids from one community or another community, when they get to that point, then they've sort of arrived a system level, that's really useful for dealing with issues with equity and improved outcomes for all kids," says French.

One of the criticisms of Act 46 was that it will affect the culture of small schools and small classrooms, but French says the law will give schools more resources to deal with issues of declining enrollment and budget restraints, rather than having to simply cut programs entirely.