One district to rule them all

Passing of Act 46 transforms CSSU into Champlain Valley School District

By Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News

Whether voters in Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George and Williston knew it or not when they voted on June 7 to consolidate under one unified district, they became part of the largest statewide education reorganization in the past 125 years. Act 46, which passed in all five towns of CSSU to create the Champlain Valley School District, is designed with an overarching goal to reduce the number of Vermont’s existing school districts by half.

The impetus for the change, which has been actively supported by Shap Smith, Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, is ostensibly to offer students from smaller communities more access to programs in neighboring larger communities and to provide tax relief in the face of declining enrollment and increasing costs.

In Charlotte, which had the highest voter participation of all five towns, proponents tout the savings that a streamlined structure will impart, along with enhanced student opportunities. Detractors caution that unification jeopardizes local control and leaves CCS vulnerable to closure.

Some community members deride the tactics with which the state has rolled out the initiative. “I do not like to be bribed or bullied,” Charlotter Jorden Blucher wrote on Front Porch Forum, in response to the incentivized pitch that the state has made for Act 46, through which communities can vote yes to unification and get tax breaks or say no and lose a portion of their school funding and risk being assigned into a merger by the state.

By voting yes and meeting the state’s July 1, 2016, deadline for maximizing state financial incentives, homestead taxpayers will receive a 10-cent reduction per $100 of assessed value. Then it would drop to 8 cents, 6 cents, 4 cents and 2 cents in subsequent years. In addition, the state will make available a grant of $150,000 to help pay for transition costs.

On July 7, 2017, the new governance structure of the Champlain Valley School District will become fully operational, and the seven boards of CSSU will be replaced with one 12-member board overseeing the unified district, with one blended tax rate adjusted for Common Level of Appraisal in each town.

During the year of transition, the newly formed board will begin working on the budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. A single budget for the operations of a coordinated Pre K–12 system will be presented to voters on Town Meeting Day in March of 2017. “We are definitely figuring things out in anticipation of the work ahead of us,” CSSU Superintendent Elaine Pinckney wrote in an email to all of the districts’ principals and current board members. Pinckney will assume the same role in the consolidated district.

How this statewide restructuring will ultimately affect Vermont’s schools, which are some of the smallest and have the lowest student-to-teacher ratio in the country, remains to be seen. Ensuring that local input can be actively heard in a newly consolidated district will be an issue in the coming months and years. Whether or not a system is developed during this transition year or after the new board begins meeting next July, community members are hesitant to embrace this shift fully, though they’re not without hope.