Almost all of the towns that merged under Act 46 will see a decrease in their taxes this year, but that will not last unless something changes in the next five years.
The only town that does not receive a tax decrease is Warren, whose taxes will go up by 0.07 percent. However, that number is still padded by the fact that each town received a 10-cent incentive to merge before July 1, 2016.
The incentives will decrease by 2 cents each year until they are phased out by 2022. Part of the reason for the relief is to buffer the transition from multiple school boards to one.
“I’ve got to say I hate the way people use the word incentives because there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into a transition. And to me it really is, I think of it like, a transition cost. I mean there are things you actually have to pay for and do, literally, in terms of lawyer fees and everything else just to close down your old districts and open up your new district,” said Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe.
That is not to say that school districts have that much time, Holcombe noted, and if nothing happens within the five-year incentives, the taxpayers in each town will pay for it.
“If you don't use those years of transition to make some serious structural changes, you're setting your districts up for a tax wall at the end of the process,” she said.
In the fall of 2016, the newly formed Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) began its first budgeting process and while Washington West Superintendent Brigid Nease suggested some cuts, which would bring costs down and bring class sizes in some of The Valley’s schools in line with state standards, the board ultimately decided to operate as is.
During meetings, board members noted that they wanted to take things slowly and use at least one year of the tax incentives to figure everything out as a new governing body.
The hard decisions that the HUUSD Board faces are not new to the group. Many of the sitting board members were also on the Act 46 study committee. Their report states “Class sizes should be brought into alignment with Vermont Quality Standards. Not only would it save money, but some of the potential savings could be redirected into insuring equity of education for all students.”
Christine Sullivan, the HUUSD board chair and member of the Act 46 study committee, said that there were some savings that the schools will receive just by unifying. They will be able to share resources and they will save money by eliminating redundancies across towns.
However, she did note that eventually the harder discussions around staffing will have to happen. That statement highlights another goal of Act 46, creating equity within the school district. During the budgeting process board members noted clear inequities between school systems. Earlier in that same report it states, “At the present time, foreign language is not available in all of our elementary schools, which leads to disparity based on town of residence.”
Crossett Brook students currently have less access to foreign language instruction than students of the same age at Harwood, and during the budget process one board member motioned to add one full-time foreign language teacher to address that issue, but it was voted down.
Not all school districts are taking the process as slowly. The towns of Bethel, Rochester and Royalton voted on Monday to make drastic changes to their district. They will unify under one high school and they will combine middle schools. They will also repurpose their second high school for students interested in technical and professional fields.
These changes will save their school district $600,000. The same changes are not possible in The Valley, as there is already a unified high school, but it highlights the different approach of another district.
The Harwood Unified Union School District Board is meeting Wednesday, April 13, as The Valley Reporter goes to press.