- What is a Regional Education District?
A Regional Education District (RED) is one of two types of Unified School District (USD) that our towns of Essex Junction, Essex and Westford are considering forming. Though there are minor differences in the structures and tax incentives surrounding the Act 46 USD and the Act 153/156 RED, from the perspective of voters the main difference is whether all three of our communities vote Yes. Either type of USD is created by a voluntary merger, and provides education in the same manner to all district students at each grade level (pre-K through 12).
- What is the process for deciding whether to unify our districts?
The RED Study Committee, made up of twenty community members, spent months studying unification and concluded that it can positively affect our ability to meet student educational needs while spending taxpayer dollars wisely. Therefore, the committee prepared a report on its findings, including Articles of Agreement which would establish the unified district if approved by voters. The Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) has approved the committee’s report and Articles. On November 3, 2015, voters in each of the three towns will have the opportunity to vote on the proposal. Please attend one of the upcoming community forums to learn more before the vote!
- We studied merging in 2007, and decided not to. What’s different this time around?
A series of increases in the state base education tax rate has made it clear that the way education is currently organized in Vermont is getting more and more expensive while serving a shrinking population of students, and it is worth exploring all avenues to cost savings that also have the potential to preserve or expand educational opportunities. Our three towns also have a lot more in common than they did 10 years ago, such as more similar tax rates, and a series of initiatives to share services between Essex Junction and Essex Town.
- What happens if the districts decide not to unify this time?
New legislation (Act 46) requires all districts in Vermont that do not already meet the AOE’s desired characteristics (size and uniform education of all students in each grade pre-K to 12) to explore unification. If we do not merge voluntarily, our towns would need to conduct a self-study and make a case for why the current systems serve students better than a unified district. The school boards would also be required to meet with other boards and discuss collaboration. The AOE would then decide whether to mandate a merger in 2019.
- How is education currently organized in our towns?
Each of the three towns elects a school board that has responsibility for local elementary education. These are the Essex Town School Board, the Westford School Board, and the Essex Junction Prudential Committee. The U#46 School Board has members from Essex Junction and Essex Town and is responsible for Essex High School and the Center for Technology, Essex. The Chittenden Central Supervisory Union (CCSU) also has a board with members drawn from the Westford, Prudential (Essex Junction) and U#46 Boards to decide overarching issues. Each of the town boards separately prepares and adopts budgets to administer its schools. Many costly functions, however, are administered in parallel at CCSU and in Essex Town —including a district superintendent, senior administrators, special education, curriculum, and negotiations with teacher and staff unions.
The three towns have a total of 10 schools:
- Essex Town operates Essex Elementary, Founders, and Essex Middle School.
- Westford operates the Westford School.
- Essex Junction operates Summit Street, Hiawatha, Fleming, and Albert D. Lawton Middle School.
- U#46 operates Essex High School and the Center for Technology, Essex.
Our three towns serve nearly four thousand students. We employ approximately 875 full time equivalent (FTE) employees. Our communities’ combined education spending now exceeds fifty-four million dollars.
- How could unification improve on the present structure of education in Essex Junction, Essex Town and Westford?
A merger would create a single school district and elected board responsible for all grades, pre-K through twelve. The unified school board would assume all of the responsibilities of the supervisory union.
- A unified district could streamline the complicated school board and administrative structure outlined above.
- A unified district could expand educational options for students (e.g. sharing equipment, technology and staff, flexibility in building use).
- A unified district could provide cost savings in the operation of our pre-K-12 schools. A few examples: one audited financial statement instead of five; contract with a single provider for trash or food service; eliminate billing back and forth for services provided by one member district to another.
- Would I be able to address the unified school board directly if I have an issue?
The board of the new unified district will be elected by the voters of the three towns at the same time the merger is voted on. All board meetings would be open to the public, and contact information for the board would be available on the district web site.
- How will I continue to have an impact on what happens in my local school?
It should be easier to influence policies surrounding local education when there is only one board rather than an overlapping series of boards with a patchwork of responsibilities. School board members will still be elected by the voters from each town. Building-level staffing should remain the same (principals, etc.). Community volunteering will continue to be encouraged at each school.
- Will my local school be closed under a merger?
We do not anticipate closing any of the schools in Essex Junction, Essex Town or Westford, and the proposed articles of agreement prohibit doing so for four years after unification. Budgetary pressures based on per-pupil spending that have caused Westford residents to be concerned about the sustainability of their school would be lessened in a larger district with more pupils. (In the big picture of Vermont schools, all our 10 schools are reasonably sized.) If the unified district ever decides to close a school in the more distant future, the town has right of first refusal to buy back the school property.
- Will a unified district change the programs and/or services in my local school?
A unified board will work to offer the best learning opportunities in all ten of the schools and will support efforts to replicate best practices and successful programs. It is likely that there will be some local differences among school buildings in a unified district. For example, an individual building may want to pilot a new program or service.
- Will school choice change in a unified district?
The Articles of Agreement for forming the new unified district “grandfather” Westford students who have already begun high school, at a school other than Essex High School, when the new school district would begin operation. This means that students who have chosen a different high school for their freshman year in the 2016-2017 school year, would be able to continue in that high school until they graduate in 2020. The new unified union district would pay tuition for these students as well as any others who were sophomores or juniors at other schools during the 2016-2017 school year. In the fall of 2017 all freshmen would attend Essex High School unless they were able to access Vermont’s limited high school choice law, Act 129.
Under Act 129, Vermont’s limited high school choice law, students still might have an opportunity to attend a high school other than EHS after a unified school district was formed. It is not, however, guaranteed. Essex High School has to offer 40 slots per year, across all grades, to students who wish to attend a different public high school. At present, only 4-5 of those slots are used. The other and perhaps harder piece is that the receiving schools, for example MMU and Fairfax, can decide how many incoming students they are willing to accept within some state guidelines. Students who wanted to attend a high school other than EHS would have to apply for an opening at another school. If more students want to attend that school than there are openings, a lottery is conducted. No money changes hands between schools under Act 129.
- Will tax rates go up or down?
Tax rates in the three towns will be less volatile since expenses are spread over a broader tax base. The state has approved various incentives worth millions of dollars to support mergers, which will cover any up-front merger costs (transitions in payroll systems, new contract negotiations, etc.) and may even cause a lower tax rate. In the longer term, the merger’s administrative efficiencies should help to slow down cost increases.
- What transportation services will be provided?
The elected school board of the unified district would have the final say on this matter, as with many details of operating the new district. Boards are required by law to take into consideration issues like equal access to education and the state of local roads. It is possible that we would see increased transportation offerings, such as buses for Westford students in grades 9-12 to attend Essex High and buses for some or all Essex Junction students. The new school board would not be required to offer exactly the same services in all three towns if local needs differ. Even if busing were offered to all students in the unified district, the cost is estimated to be significantly smaller than the savings realized in other areas, such as duplicate superintendent’s offices and Westford high school tuition.