Sharing of debts a sticking point for WCSU Act 46 merger

EAST MONTPELIER — Washington Central Supervisory Union’s six school boards are in for a struggle with the Agency of Education over whether they will be forced to merge their boards and budget.

The latest meeting of their boards’ leadership determined that they will fight this out until a final determination is made by the State Board of Education later this year.

Earlier this month, the AOE released 18 school merger recommendations, one of them being the Washington Central Supervisory Union. Districts involved in these proposals have already elected not to merge either at their leadership level or by a public vote.

At the center of the desire to keep governance separated is concern over the merging of the six school budgets. Act 46, the 2015 school consolidation law behind the statewide merger push, requires that merging schools not only consolidate their governance but also their money.

Were the schools to merge, the composition would include the elementary school districts in Calais, Berlin, East Montpelier, Middlesex, Worcester and the highly regarded U-32 High School in Montpelier.

The money-sharing deal has been the No. 1 sticking point for those against the merger proposals, and even for those who are open-minded to them.

“We’re one of the two schools that will get hit the hardest with tax implications,” said Susanna Culver, chair of the Calais Elementary School Board. “We don’t have any bond debt and the other elementary schools have bond debt, so our taxes will be very negatively impacted should we be forced to merge.”

The current situation is that Berlin, East Montpelier, and Middlesex each has debt while Calais and Worcester have no debt.

Culver was not at the latest meeting of all the boards, but she stands out from many of her SU colleagues because she is at least open to the idea of a merger.

“I’m not 100 percent convinced that a merger is awful,” she said. “I think there are some very good parts of it. I’m not a fan of big government, I don’t like making government bigger because I think it just means that you are waiting for more people to try and do surveys and studies and make decisions and nothing ever gets done and everything costs more.

“But our schools are going to look different because they have to.”

Susan Clark, a U-32 parent and author on local governance issues, was at the latest SU meeting and she said the resolve among the boards’ leadership was that they will fight this until the end.

“Basically all of the boards said, ‘Well, nothing has changed. This is still our proposal and we are going to defend it before the State Board of Education.'”

For two years the six districts mulled over merger possibilities before opting to apply for alternative district status, which essentially means they would not merge and therefore keep their current independent boards and budgets. Clark said that should be enough.

“I think the thing that is interesting about Washington Central is that we’ve spent literally years discussing this, and all of the boards discussed this, and we created a merger committee [a 706b committee] which is designed by statute to look at merging,” she said.

She also highlighted the sharing of debts as a key concern.

“We have vastly different debts between the five towns [the elementary schools] and so we don’t feel comfortable making a proposal that would merge all of our debt, because our smallest and most vulnerable schools that have really carefully managed their money would be having to pay higher taxes and, probably, according to the state plan, would be threatened to close.”

The AOE’s recommendations make the case that their current structure does not offer the best overall education services and value to taxpayers. The agency’s report states that varying debt levels “should not be the sole or primary reason to prevent merger where it is otherwise the best alternative.”

The report argues that projected savings obtained via governance efficiencies would offset some of the debt sharing costs. It further suggests that those schools without debts should be mindful that they could still find themselves in a debt-scenario when it comes to the next leaky roof or other crumbling infrastructure.

“Districts need to take the long-view when determining what will best serve their students,” it states.

The report makes the case that under the status quo student enrollment is going down and this will only result in higher tax rates and service cuts. It also accuses the WCSU of operating without equity among its districts and without much cooperation.

The report also notes that the merger proposal was never put to a public vote, although Clark noted there was an online poll which indicated strong opposition to a merger.

It concludes that a six-district merger is not “in any way impossible, impractical, or unnecessary, nor can the agency identify any other facts that would do so.”

The final decision on the fate of the six districts is due out by Nov. 30. In the meantime, the WCSU will have more chances to make its case that its current structure is the best for its kids and taxpayers alike.

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

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