Frequently Asked Questions

School district, union district, supervisory union? Which one are we, and what is the difference?

We are all three. Each town has an elementary school, and that is the "school district" with its own school board. St. Albans City and Town are also members of Union District No. 48 (USHD-48) which consists of Bellows Free Academy/Northwest Technical Center. It also has its own school board with proportional representation from St. Albans City and Town. The school districts and UHSD-48 make up the FCSU, which has its own board made up of three representatives each from the school district and USHD-48 boards. It oversees the "central office" services for all districts, such as the superintendent, special education, K-12 curriculum development, and business services.

How would governance unification (also known as the accelerated merger) change that set-up?

Rather than five boards, the school system would have just one board and one budget for all of the operations. The four school districts (three towns and UHSD-48) would become one school district.

What would that school board look like and how would it be formed?

The law states that the New Unified School Board must have proportional representation based on population Using the 210 census, this means that there must be four votes from St. Albans Town, four votes from St. Albans City and one vote from Fairfield. The study committee has decided to go with two representatives from Fairfield with ½ vote each, ensuring their voice can be heard among the board, thus creating a ten member board with nine votes. Because they are creating a unified Board that will be working for the benefit of all communities the Committee has chosen to have those candidates elected from a ballot regardless of town designation. Each of the three communities would vote on all of the Unified Board candidates.  (Select two from Fairfield, four from City, four from Town.)

Why are we doing this now?

It's the law. While merging into one school district has many good reasons, the Legislature, when it passed Act 46, provided significant financial incentives for Supervisory Unions that have recently studied mergers and already have a governance structure that is conducive to unification, including: a reduction in property tax rates of 10 cents the first year, 8 cents the second, and declining for five years to zero ;and  a $150,000 grant to help with the process.

Does "unification" mean merging schools and closing some down?

No. It refers to merging governance (school boards), budgets and operations. It does not speak to closing or expanding schools.

What is the process to make the unification happen?

A unification would require a ballot vote in each town, probably on Town Meeting Day 2016. Before that happens, there would be a vigorous public education and public engagement effort by school board members and school officials in each of the towns open to all. At the same time, the Committee, as called for under state statute, is working on Articles of Agreement for the district that would address many issues, such as dealing with each school district's long-term debt, ownership of property and assets such as school buildings, board representation, etc. A draft of the Articles of Agreement would be available well before the vote.

What happens if we decide not to do this?

Act 46 calls for the Secretary of Education to assign school districts to a larger school district by 2018 unless that smaller district can present a compelling case to remain independent. Because our school system already has a unified high school, it is logical that the Secretary of Education could require the merger of the FCSU schools into one district anyway, but without all of the incentives provided under the accelerated merger plan.

What happens if one town votes against merging with the larger district?

The FCSU Act 46 Study Committee believes a single, Unified Union district, is the preferred option.  Therefore, all three districts, Fairfield, St. Albans City and St. Albans Town are considered "necessary" for the formation of a new district.
If all three districts vote "yes," then a single Unified Union district is formed covering all three communities. Taxpayers in all three communities will receive the tax incentives.
If any one town votes "no", then no change to governance would occur and Franklin Central Supervisory Union would continue with its four current member school districts (St. Albans City, St. Albans Town, Fairfield, and BFA Union #48).  No tax incentives would be available. 

Are there assurances that our small elementary school will not be closed?

Unification can mean savings through streamlined operations so that the larger school district can continue to provide all students and communities with the education system that works best for them. Unification would not mean closure of schools, including Fairfield. In reality, the unified district would provide a much stronger buffer against tax rate increases to the Fairfield residents than they have now. Currently, small changes in size of student population can have a big impact on the school district's cost per pupil, and thus, a substantial increase in tax rates. Unification would allow them to experience the benefits of the larger pupil count, stabilizing their cost per pupil which will, in turn stabilize the tax rate.

A unification now would put the school system in a much better financial situation to operate small schools than without the incentives.

Where would the streamlining savings come from?

One major example would be in business operations. Currently, the FCSU business office must create five separate and duplicate budgets, have five separate audits and provide regular financial reports to five separate school boards. That takes an enormous amount of staff time. In a merged district, it would be reduced to one budget, one audit and reports to just one board.

There are many other opportunities such as shared administrative staff, shared janitorial and food service staff, and joint bids for services such as lawn mowing. The list of opportunities is long, and would be scrutinized by the new unified board.

Without our local school boards, who is running our schools?

While the level of involvement in running schools varies from town to town, state statute and the Vermont School Boards Association are clear that boards are supposed to govern our schools, not manage them. So, schools would be run by their principals and the superintendent, but governed by the policies implemented by the board as is presently done. 

A unification would help make clear the lines of supervision, which are not as clear today. Principals would run their schools and be supervised by the superintendent. The superintendent would answer to one board. Currently the situation is confusing for our school leaders. Some principals feel like they answer to both their local board and the superintendent, which creates conflict, and the superintendent, in effect, answers to five boards. The character of our schools will not change.

What are the educational advantages to a unification?

This is where the list gets long. First and foremost, a unified school district would help ensure that all students in the district receive an equitable, quality education regardless of town of residence. It would help ensure that each student entering BFA would arrive equally prepared having received the same excellent opportunities.

Unification 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.

For the FCSU, the timing of a unification vote coincides with the formation of a unified strategic plan for all students in the three towns, under the banner of a shared vision and mission.

A single school district would allow for great flexibility and creativity to best serve our students. Strict town borders would no longer be an issue and could give each student the opportunity for the setting that works best.

With the end of our local board, what role does the community have in our school?

The culture of each school really isn't driven by the school board. It is driven by dedicated parents and townspeople who take an active role in their schools through parent organizations, by volunteering during the school day and for after-school activities, by sponsoring and running events, by coaching sports, directing plays, and teaching about the environment. Those roles and needs will not change. The character of our School Boards will not change.

We studied merging in 2011, and decided not to.  What’s different this time around?
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 more in common than they did years ago. This unification would allow one governance structure while allowing individuality in our schools.

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 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 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 can “grandfather” Fairfield students who have already begun high school, at a school other than BFA St. Albans, 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 BFA St. Albans 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 BFA St. Albans after a unified school district was formed. It is not, however, guaranteed. BFA St. Albans has to offer a certain number of slots per year, across all grades, to students who wish to attend a different public high school. At present, only a few 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 BFA St. Albans 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.