Below is a letter sent to the State Board by ALL members of the Vermont legislative delegation representing the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union and Stowe School Districts.  It is an official request that the Board reverse its October 29th provisional decision forcing the merger of our two school districts.

 

November 13, 2018

 

The Honorable Krista Huling, Chair, State Board of Education

Members, State Board of Education

219 North Main Street, Suite 402

Barre, Vermont 05641

 

Dear Chair Huling and Members of the Vermont State Board of Education,

We are writing today in regard to the Act 46 Alternative Governance Structure application submitted to you by Elmore-Morristown Unified Union and Stowe School Districts.  We were exceptionally disappointed to learn about your provisional vote at the October 29, 2018 State Board Meeting, rejecting the recommendation by the Vermont Secretary of Education to approve our joint AGS Application, and instead requiring the merger of our school districts.

As the representatives for Elmore, Morristown, and Stowe, we respectfully ask that you reverse that decision and accept the Secretary’s recommendation to approve our Section 9 proposal.

In fact, as is made clear in the Proposed Statewide Plan submitted in June 2018 by the Vermont Secretary of Education, we respectfully ask that the Board evaluate the governance proposal “not only on its own merits, but also on the impact it may have on the students, the districts, the region, and the State.”  When you do that, we believe you will find the proposal worthy of your support, just as the Secretary did.

In reviewing the State Board meeting and minutes, we are not confident that the Board fully understood the AGS proposal, the reasons behind it, and the precise details of how it is the “Best Means” for meeting the goals of Act 46.  While the merger might be possible and practicable under the law – the provision on which the State Board seemed to focus – a merger is simply not the “Best Means” for meeting the goals of Act 46 in our region.

As you are well aware, our local School Boards and the Lamoille South Supervisory Union (LSSU) believe very strongly in the educational goals of Act 46. Both Elmore-Morristown Unified Union (EMUU) and Stowe School District (SSD):

  • Provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities,
  • Lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards,
  • Maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources,
  • Promote transparency and accountability, and
  • Deliver it as a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value.

1)     To be clear, each of our districts meets – and even exceeds these goals – and will only continue to do so if allowed to continue operating as two Side-By-Side Pre-K-12 Operating Districts assigned to the Lamoille South Supervisory Union. 

a.     From the June 2018 Proposed Statewide Plan Submitted by the Vermont Secretary of Education:

Act 46 acknowledges that there are regions of the State where it may be necessary for the statewide plan to “include alternative governance structures …, such as a supervisory union with member districts or a unified union school district with a smaller average daily membership.”

Nevertheless, the Legislature limits the State Board’s authority to include SUs with multiple member districts in the statewide plan by declaring that the “State Board shall approve the creation, expansion, or continuation of a supervisory union only if the Board concludes that this alternative structure:

“(1) is the best means of meeting the [five Act 46 Goals of opportunity, equity, and efficiency] in a particular region; and

“(2) ensures transparency and accountability for the member districts and the public at large …”

b.     There is absolutely no doubt that our proposed Alternative Structure is the “Best Means” for meeting the goals of Act 46, and ensuring transparency and accountability for the districts and the public at large.

2) In addition, the recent merger of Elmore and Morristown should not be dismissed by the State Board as something unimportant or irrelevant.  In fact, it was an incredibly challenging process, but one the districts did voluntarily because we are committed to a sustainable school governance model.  Furthermore, make no mistake, the transition process is still underway even now.

a.     As was also made clear in the Secretary’s Proposed Statewide Plan:

What makes this discussion both unique and difficult is the nature and creation of the EMUU District itself. The study and vote leading to creation of the EMUU occurred after the enactment of Act 46.

The new unified district, however, did not meet eligibility requirements for tax rate reductions or other transitional assistance under any of the voluntary merger programs created by Acts 153, 156, 46, or 49 because – in a nutshell – its combined ADM was less than 900 (776 in FY 2018) and it did not result from the unification of four or more districts.

In other areas of the state, newly merged districts with smaller ADM numbers qualified for tax rate reductions because they resulted from the merger of four or more districts.

In addition, some unified districts formed by two districts with a combined ADM of less than 900 were eligible because they were able to partner with an additional two or more merging districts with a different operating/tuitioning structure under the “Side-by-Side” program enacted in Act 153. Because it was ineligible for any of the voluntary merger programs, the EMUU did not receive tax rate reductions for the first four or five years of operation, was not awarded grant funds to assist with its transition to a unified structure, did not have its small school grants transformed into perpetual merger support grants, and is not exempt from State Board-required merger under its statewide plan.

Unlike what occurred in other areas of the State, the ineligibility for tax rate reductions and other assistance did not inhibit the study committee from developing the proposal or the voters from approving creation of the EMUU because they saw the opportunities for both their students and their taxpayers inherent in the larger, more flexible structure.

This does not mean that creation of the EMUU and its first years of operation have been easy. Assuming full responsibility for the education of the unified district’s children on July 1, 2016, the EMUU Board is still engaged in the work necessary to help its communities work and think of themselves as a single entity. The process is a slow one, and the details of merging two autonomous structures into a single unit is time-consuming and complex. As a result, the EMUU Board requests that it be given the time to adjust to the governance changes which it voluntarily embraced – and that the district continue to work towards greater collaborative efforts with the Stowe District – before the EMUU considers assuming the additional challenge of further merger.

Although this is a difficult decision, and although the State Board will not have the ability to require the districts to merge after November 30 of this year, the Secretary believes that this entirely unique situation presents evidence sufficient to override the presumption that a unified Proposed Statewide Plan; Act 46, Sec. 10(a) (Revised: June 1, 2018) Page 149 of 189 district that is its own single-district SU is the structure most likely to meet or exceed the educational and fiscal goals of Act 46 in a sustainable manner.

Finally, it has also become clear that the tax implications of a forced merger fly in the face of the goals of Act 46, in that the taxes in Morristown and Elmore would increase, while the taxes in Stowe would decrease.  Couple that increase with the fact that neither Elmore nor Morristown benefited from any tax reductions in their voluntary merger, and nobody can argue that this is fair. In addition, with significant capital needs in the immediate future in the Stowe School District, the unfairness of burdening the taxpayers of Morristown and Elmore with those additional costs is magnified.

The approval of our Section 9 proposal is of critical importance to our shared communities and students. 

We implore you to take the advice of the professionals in the Agency of Education who have spent the better part of two years working on the Statewide Plan – studying all of the documentation, meeting with stakeholders, and truly understanding our AGS proposal and why it is the “Best Means” for meeting the goals of Act 46. 

Once again, we ask that you reverse your provisional decision of October 29th, and accept the recommendation of the Secretary of Education to approve the Alternative Governance Structure Application jointly submitted by the EMUU and Stowe School Districts.

If you do choose to ultimately reject the recommendation of the Secretary, we will expect, on behalf of our constituents, a full explanation of the reasons behind that rejection.

 

Very Sincerely,

 

Rep. Heidi E. Scheuermann

Rep. David Yacovone

Rep. Gary Nolan (Outgoing Rep.)

Rep. Avram Patt (Incoming Rep.)

Sen. Rich Westman

 

cc: The Honorable Philip Scott, Vermont Governor

     Daniel French, Vermont Secretary of Education