Last night I attended a public forum at Saint Albans City School about the Franklin Central Supervisory Union’s consolidation plan. It was the first time I had seen one of the proposed plans in any detail and I have to say it was reassuring on a number of levels. Saint Albans City School board chair James Farr and Fairfield board member Michael L’Esperance did much of the presentation, along with other board members and Supervisory Union Superintendent Kevin Dirth.
1. The Boards and Administrators Get It
Act 46 has a lot more to do with achieving equity between towns, than it does dramatically decreasing property tax rates or school costs. While the Act 46 Committee did estimate nearly $250,000 in efficiency savings by consolidating into one districts, they were quick to point out that this is a conservative figure and that they don’t anticipate big savings from consolidation in the first year.
2. The Smallest Town Has A Lot to Gain, But…
Fairfield has about 230 students and the proposed district will be about 2700 students. Saint Albans Messenger reporter Michelle Monroe pointed out that Fairfield has struggled the most with the current relationship between property tax rates and per pupil spending. The loss of a handful of students two years ago caused a 20 cent tax increase even though the school budget didn’t go up at all. The new district would spread the impact of population over all three communities (Saint Albans City, Saint Albans Town and Fairfield).
There will have to be equity in programming, class offerings and educational opportunity among the three elementary schools- and that’s the biggest opportunity for Fairfield in the new district. The hard part is that there will be 9 votes on the new consolidated School Board: 4 Town residents, 4 City residents and 2 Fairfield residents with 1/2 vote each. All members will be elected at-large, which means the two big towns will be able to elect the two Board members from the small town. That was a bit unnerving to some Fairfield residents, but Jim Farr was quick to say- “Every town has 9 votes representing them, we’re going to be one district.” Still, if voters in Fairfield choose to keep riding the tax roller coaster in order to maintain local control, then the plan will fall apart because all three towns must approve the plan for the merged district to be approved on Town Meeting Day.
3. The Tax Savings Are Real…
… and those districts who don’t get the benefits by consolidating will end up paying for those benefits to other districts. For a Saint Albans City resident with a $200,000 home the 10 cent break on the penny rate in the first year will be worth about $200, and the projected savings over five incentivized years would be about $1000 for the owner of a $200,000 property in the City or Fairfield and over $1400 for the owner of a similar property in the Town. However given the fact that most homeowners pay based on income I don’t think that the majority of people will see a huge difference in their taxes because of this plan.
Act 46 is going to give the new district’s school board members flexibility and options they never have had in our one-building-per-district model. We have four school districts and five boards that will now become one unit, with one budget- assuming that the plan is passed in March by all three towns. The transition is going to be tough, but as one City School board member told me after the meeting “we have actually already been working on this for years but none of the prior initiatives passed by the state had enough carrot or stick to work. The only part of act 46 I don’t like is the spending caps.”I imagine we’re not the only Supervisory Union in Vermont where that’s the case.