Act 46: A Step In The Right Direction

On September 22, the Burlington Free Press ran an opinion piece by Art Woolf that asserts that Act 46 “can’t meaningfully reduce property taxes.” In his piece, Woolf was critical of the the unification plan being proposed by the RED Study Committee. In particular, he questioned the actual cost savings that would be realized in a unified school district.

Act 46 is not a panacea for high property tax rates in Vermont, but it’s a good start. While the Study Committee agrees that Act 46 isn’t a perfect piece of legislation, it is part of an important statewide effort to provide the best education for the students of our state at a cost that taxpayers can afford today and into the future.

Essentially, Act 46 provides incentives for school districts in Vermont to study consolidation (click here to read Act 46 in its entirety). A critical part of this examination is not only looking at efficiencies, cost savings, and tax rates, but also what is in the best interest of students.

In the Essex and Westford school districts, there wouldn’t be significant savings at the school-building level since all of the schools are viable with class sizes in the optimal range. Our savings is largely at the administration level since two central offices could be merged into one.

Another significant savings relates to the eventual elimination of school choice for the families of about 40 students who currently choose a school other than Essex High School. Under the merger, these students would be allowed to continue to attend their school of choice through graduation. Future high school students may continue to have choice, but it would be under the Statewide school choice option provided by Act 129. The limiting factor will be capacity limits set up by potential receiving schools. Under Act 129, tuition does not have to “follow” these students.

A unified district will also allow for other economy of scale and efficiency possibilities that do not currently exist for our districts separately. Certainly, cost savings could be more dramatic for other communities with different circumstances. Those communities may be able to reduce teacher-to-student ratios by changing grade configurations or consolidating small schools. A merger for Essex-Westford may lead the way for others to follow suit and cumulatively should lead to significant Statewide savings in education spending. Each community has unique circumstances and Act 46 is the impetus for them to take a closer look at those circumstances and consider a better, and more efficient, way of providing education services.

Beyond cost savings, a driver of higher property taxes in many communities is something known as “phantom students.” For tax rate purposes, the law used to protect some communities (like Westford) against the effects of declining enrollment. If a community’s enrollment dropped by five or 10 percent in one year, the pupil count would only drop by three and a half percent creating an artificially high pupil count. Other communities in the State would, in essence, pay for these “phantom students.”  The law is now phasing out this protection. Communities with declining enrollment will see a dramatic drop in pupils which increases the calculated cost per pupil and resulting tax rates. If the unified district is passed by voters, Westford’s declining enrollment would be offset by stable enrollment in Essex and Westford and therefore would be protected by the effects of the change in law. Without unification, Westford can expect their property tax to increase by about five percent.

All of this being said, cost savings and tax rates (along with the tax incentive) are not the primary reason for an Essex-Westford unification. Some of the higher priority outcomes include:

  • We believe the merger will be better for students with improved learning opportunities.
  • We would have one school board with one vision and one strategic plan that encompasses the continuum of learning from preK through grade 12.
  • There will be opportunities with increased scale to retain and possibly expand a variety of education programs and learning paths.
  • We would have increased flexibility to direct resources to where they are needed regardless of existing district lines.
  • We can provide a more seamless transition to ninth grade within a single school district, which is especially helpful for students with special needs and their families.
  • Our educators would have expanded professional development opportunities and could share expertise and experience to address challenges such as implementation of Common Core, personalized learning plans, and other changes in curriculum or programs.
  • Students would have greater access to a vast array of extracurricular choices and we can even consider exciting possibilities such as the establishment of magnet schools within the system.
  • Students would be able to remain in the same school if their family moves between Essex Town, Essex Junction, or Westford.
  • And this is just a partial list!

The overall community would also benefit from a simplified governance structure. Families wouldn’t have to struggle to determine which superintendent or school board to contact as issues arise. There would be one budget and one tax rate for the community to participate in, understand, and cast their vote on.

No, Act 46 is not the perfect solution, but an important piece of a larger educational reform movement for the State of Vermont.

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