Did you miss the first round of public forums to discuss the potential unified school district? The presentation from the three forums and responses to the questions asked are now available below. Stay tuned, as three more public forums will be announced soon for the month of October.
Responses from the questions submitted at the three September public forms:
Has this committee looked into other school systems (within Vermont or other states) who have gone through the consolidation process?
Yes, we have been watching Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District, our neighbors to the east. They consolidated under the Act 153/156 model, July 1, 2015. Their school leaders met with our committee to share their insights on best practices, and to learn if and how they have been able to realize the opportunities and efficiencies that were anticipated. Even at this early stage of their consolidation they have been able to achieve greater efficiencies than anticipated and have been better able to deploy their resources to meet the needs of students. We also discussed important research on Vermont district and school size relative to cost savings and student outcomes. You can read the full report here.
There are currently different leadership structures and decision-making processes across communities … How will the best leadership structure and decision making process be determined? And what might it look like?
The study committee believes that the similarities in these areas are greater than the differences. Developing a cohesive pre-K-12 system will be a very early priority of the new school board and administration. The newly elected board of the unified school district will be responsible for the following roles: engaging the community, creating a vision/mission for the district, establishing policies that reflect that vision, hiring a superintendent to carry out those policies, monitoring progress toward the vision, developing and adopting a budget and collectively bargaining to establish unified contracts for the district. The “what” will be defined by the unified board, with community input. The “how” be determined by the administration, within parameters defined by the board.
How will you decide which superintendent will lead the unified district? / What reductions in Central Office staffing are being suggested for the unified district? / Where will the new Central Office be housed? Are either existing buildings large enough to house the administrative staff? / How will the teachers contracts be unified?
All of these decisions are very important to achieve the goals of a unified vision and mission for the educational experience for students pre-K through grade 12, and streamlined and efficient provision of education in the district. These details will be up to the newly elected unified district school board, guided by federal and state law, the Articles of Agreement, and the desire to achieve as smooth a transition as possible for our students.
How will student voice be included in this process?
The students are and have been welcome to participate in this process. One high school student served on the Study Committee and we would welcome the opportunity to answer student questions at forums, at their schools or through the website. As a unified board works to establish a vision and considers educational opportunities for students, student voice will be critical to the process. A new board could consider how best to incorporate that voice into their work, either through direct student involvement in board work or intentional outreach to students on topical issues.
What is meant by “potential for greater voter engagement?”
Currently, the combined total school boards seat more than 20. Unfortunately, seats go unfilled and most “races” for school board are uncontested. Fewer seats may provide for greater competition to serve and to ensure that those serving are accountable to monitoring the district policies toward achievement of outcomes for students and value for taxpayers. Also currently, the CCSU budget is not voted on by the public, but rather is voted on by the CCSU board and “charged back” as a line item on each individual school district budget (Essex Junction, Westford and EHS/U46). A single district, board and budget would provide greater transparency around all costs, and make it easier for citizens to attend budget work sessions, attend informational hearings, and vote.
Currently when there are concerns/issues that are brought up to the current administration, these seem to get “lost” in the current system. How will this improve with a larger population/number of schools/programs? How will we be assured that administration will address our concerns with a larger district?
Building level administration will remain the same in a unified district, which is where much of the interaction with families happens. On a district level, a single board, single set of policies, and fewer administrators may in fact make it less confusing to know where to direct requests or concerns.
If the two Westford Board members can’t agree on a vote, what happens?
Each Westford Board member controls his or her own half vote. If the members from Essex Junction and Essex Town were also evenly divided, the matter would be tied. While it is possible for ties to arise in our existing school boards (an even number of members in attendance), usually decisions are arrived at through discussion and consensus; close votes are very rare.
Is the 4-4-2 representative model fixed? Seems like Westford loses out. / So, voters in Westford are outnumbered enough that we couldn’t vote down the budget and our votes on the board are not relevant. How can we be sure that issues important to rural kids will not be brushed under the rug?
Each board member’s voice at the table will help to shape policy, and school boards in Vermont strive to achieve consensus through debate before bringing things down to a vote. There are also rural kids in Essex Town, and policies for Westford kids are already decided by the CCSU board, which contains members from all three communities. Outcomes of all votes will be determined by those who turn out to vote. Westford has a long history of strong voter participation.
If Westford has two members and one vote, what happens if our Westford population increases. Will we get more votes?
The board will reassess proportional representation after each census (the next census is in 2020). A pretty large shift would be necessary for this to happen, but Westford could get more votes by increasing its population (or by a big decline in Essex or Essex Junction population). The new board could also decide to have members elected “at large,” meaning that candidates would not be bound by geography alone, but by the size of the overall district. This could potentially increase the number of Westford residents serving on the board, should they win the most votes in an at large election.
Are there/do you have any projections for population growth for any of the communities in the future? Adjust school attendance boundary line and school configuration?
Current projections show our communities in a low point, demographically, of entering kindergartners, with student numbers rising slightly over the next decade. The school board of a unified district would have the authority to adjust boundary lines and configurations after June 30, 2018. The board would also have the flexibility (which isn’t there between different districts now) to allow for inter-district choice among the pK-8 schools and/or to choose to grandfather families in such a scenario. It’s also possible that boundaries will be maintained just as they are.
My son is in third grade at Founders. We are very close to the border with the Junction, would my son need to relocate schools buildings after the merger? If yes, when would this relocation happen?
Your son will remain at Founders. According to the Articles of Agreement, for the first year of operation (2017-2018) the unified district will retain boundaries as they are. After that point the board can examine alternatives if it seems that boundary adjustments or other reorganization would benefit students and families, but by that time your son will be in middle school.
Did the committee look into the existing differences in programs between districts?
Yes, we heard presentations on a vast array of details about the governance structures and educational programs in the districts. On an educational level, some differences exist even within the supervisory union (for example, multi-grade classrooms are more common at Westford Elementary than at ADL, even though both are in CCSU), so sharing a governance structure does not prohibit diversity if the situation calls for it. With a single vision, board, policies, and administration, collaboration can ensure equitable opportunities for students in any situation.
Will those opportunities result in real choices for parents? / Would our [Westford] children have choice to go to an Essex Town or Essex Elementary school? / What incentives will there be for a new board to offer magnet schools or specialized programs?
If student, parent, and teacher interest is there, a unified school district will have much more flexibility to offer specialized programs than any of our individual towns has had historically. Uniting our human and capital resources could translate into more feasible, cost-effective options in organizing educational programs.
Is there research and/or case studies to examine, which demonstrate that merging contributes to increased academic achievement? Can you cite them?
Check out the article “When is Small Too Small?” by Bruce Baker and Wendy Geller, which cites a wide variety of data on small school districts and concludes that most Vermont school districts are too small to get value for taxpayer money. A district size of 2000-4000 students, such as ours would be if we unify, allows additional educational opportunities (through robust staffing options, etc.) while trimming down excess, duplicate administrative cost. CCSU and Essex Town are relatively large by Vermont standards, and do have better academic achievement on standard measures than many Vermont districts. The goal is to maintain that excellence, enhance educational opportunities, and increase organizational efficiencies.
Curious how come the seamless transition to ninth grade couldn’t happen without consolidation?
While a considerable amount of collaboration is happening among districts now, it is due to the intentional, personal efforts of the current administrations and staff, not by design or mandate. Even with those efforts, there are limitations to the amount of information that can be shared because our information systems are not aligned, and limitations to the amount of staff and resource sharing that can happen under the current governance structure. Collaboration happens among the Special Education directors, but still there are limitations on transitioning students with their current support staff from Essex Town to EHS due to the separate districts and contracts. Therefore, the team of people that has been providing services for the student has to hand off to an entirely new team. Westford Elementary teachers don’t know if their students will be headed to EHS or another public or private high school. Our current structures hinder our ability to plan for the entire journey of the student pre-K through 12, making it difficult to ensure that they are ready for the next stages of their lives in college or careers.
Can I get a real world example of how sharing resources will help kids in Westford?
Westford already shares resources with Essex Junction in the Supervisory Union to provide necessary superintendent and financial services without operating yet another central office. On the student level, Westford students will now belong to a grade level with more than 20 students, including additional rural students from the Town. While the larger cohort is split across a number of schools, it still means the availability of more educators with specialized skills. Special educators with special skills, for instance, could work part of the time in Westford and part of the time in Essex Town. The same would be true of potential expanded opportunities in languages and other enrichment opportunities. For educators, it could enhance their ability to share best practices with their colleagues in neighboring towns. This provides a source for professional growth among all educators, as they learn from one another, and greater equity of experience for students.
Will bussing to EHS be available to Westford students?
Final decisions on transportation have to be made by the unified school board, which would be elected at the same time the merger vote occurs. However, based on state law, it is extremely unlikely that busing could be provided to Essex Town students and not to Westford students.
Westford school choice is gone in 2020? / If a student starts high school outside of the Essex district in 2019, will they have to transfer to Essex High School in 2020? / Please explain school choice clause. What would be the last group of Westford eighth grade students who could choose a high school and attend it through 12th grade? / The unification begins July 1, 2017, so would the class of 2017 be the final class? Or the class of 2020, given the grandfather clause?
Westford students who are currently in eighth grade would have school choice as it currently exists and would be able to continue at their chosen school through graduation. Current seventh grade students would attend Essex High School unless they participate in statewide school choice as defined in Act 129.
Slots for high school exchange … is it 20 per grade? How many slots are being used now? / Through a unified district is there any plan to increase the number of school choice vouchers?
Total outgoing school choice slots available from Essex High School is no less than 40 by Act 129, though the new unified board can choose to increase this limit. Currently only five of those outgoing slots are accessed. It should be possible, therefore, for Westford students to easily access slots if they wish, since only about one-third of Westford students (approx. six-to-eight per year) choose not to attend Essex High School. The limiting factor will be other high schools’ availability of slots to accept incoming school choice students under Act 129.
Are all three towns currently over the excess spending tax threshold? If so, how will this change when unified?
None of our towns are currently over the excess spending threshold, though the U#46 (high school) is closest (which would result in a tax increase for Essex Junction and Essex Town) and the coming expiration of “hold harmless” protection will likely result in Westford exceeding it soon. The threshold is calculated based on per-pupil spending, which means that a unified district, with a larger population, will see smaller fluctuations and costs spread over the entire pre-K to 12 population allowing for better planning.
What would the projected annual savings be for a typical taxpayer?
A number of factors that are outside of a school district’s control have large effects on taxes, as do individual variations (property value, income sensitivity, etc.). As a best guess, we can look at the historical data modeling conducted by the CCSU/ETSD finance offices. This shows a cost reduction translating to (depending on town) 1.6 cents to 3.4 cents on the property tax rate, without considering the tax incentives. Not considering income sensitivity, at a property value of $200,000 this would equate to a $32 to $68 annual reduction, or for a home value of $250,000, a reduction of $39 to $85. The important thing to remember is that while these numbers sound small, they are a step in the right direction (compared to the 20-25 cent tax rate increase we have seen in the last five years) and that these amounts are enough to support many student programs.
How does the one million savings break down across the three towns?
Education tax rates would be unified for the unified district, so all taxpayers in the towns would see identical rate reductions and benefit by the same percentage.
What happens with teacher contracts as there are different contracts for Essex Town and CCSU? You know that the VEA/NEA will not give up anything that has been negotiated. / Will cost savings be offset by likely increases in salaries when contracts are combined?
It is possible that in areas where the Essex Town contract for teachers or support staff differs from the corresponding contract for CCSU, negotiation will result in salaries and benefits meshing at the higher of the two levels. The contracts and salary schedules are not vastly different from one another, however, so the change would not be huge. Also, a unified district would have reduced legal and administrative expenses when there is only one set of periodic contract negotiations, etc.
Does the savings from Westford tuition take into account that a significant number of Westford students already choose EHS? They could not be considered part of the savings, correct?
Yes, only tuition for Westford high school students who choose other high schools was considered in the savings calculation.
The tax incentive applies only to the homestead (house two acres) and not to all the property?
The tax incentive applies to all property.
Who will own the Westford School property?
The unified school district would own the property, with the right of first refusal to Westford town should the school district ever deem the Westford school property no longer necessary. For at least four years, no efforts can be taken to close any school buildings, and this is not anticipated to be necessary for the foreseeable future.
Will Westford be paid for the school property in some manner upon unification?
The FAQ states “if the unified district ever decided to close a school … the town will have right of first refusal to buy back the school property.” Property from each of the school districts would convey to the unified school district (technically for one dollar). If, at some point, any property is unnecessary for the operation of the unified school district, the district would convey the property back to the town/village in which it is located (also for one dollar).
The Unification Vote
What happens if one of more towns vote no multiple times? Can we be pushed into another district or another town? / Will Westford be forced to join a unified district if it votes against this unification? / What will happen if Westford votes this down? Will we remain the same? / I’ve heard that if we vote down this proposal, we’ll be forced into a school district perhaps not of our choice. Is that accurate? / If Essex Town or Essex Junction voted this down, how come they would not be redistricted like we are being told will happen to Westford?
There were a large number of questions about the result of a “no” vote. If Westford votes no, Essex Junction and Essex Town can go on with forming a Regional Education District around the high school. The Supervisory Union will be dissolved which means the Vermont Agency of Education (AoE) will assign Westford to some other Supervisory Union as soon as possible so as not to be without a superintendent and other essential services. Then, per Act 46, Westford will likely undergo a merger assigned by the state by 2019. If, in the first eight months of this process, Westford decides on unification with Essex Junction and Essex Town after all, the Articles of Agreement allow for a second vote. Westford could join automatically in this manner. For Westford to unify with Essex later, or with Mount Mansfield Union or any other school district or supervisory union at any time, the unified communities would have to vote to accept Westford; the state will not unilaterally assign a town to a newly formed unified district.
If Essex Junction or Essex Town votes no, since they share the union high school, a unified district cannot be formed between one of them and Westford. The unification will not occur. Under Act 46, our towns would then be responsible for preparing reports on why we chose not to unify, but if the AoE does not see things the same way they would assign a merger by 2019.
What potential disadvantages did the committee identify? / What were the “cons” of unification that the study found?
The study committee voted in support of proposing a merger to voters because it found that the disadvantages were small in comparison to the advantages. Some disadvantages we acknowledged included: Westford losing grade 9-12 school choice (although this system is very expensive and unpredictable for Westford taxpayers); tough choices about downsizing the administration, when members of the communities have many positive feelings about their central office staffs; higher ratio of staff and students to administrators (but better opportunity to streamline the efforts of the central office staffs); fewer board members/representation per town (since many school board seats are currently unfilled, this seems to be less of an issue).