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Mike Faher/VTDigger and The Commons

Vernon’s elementary school graduates have a choice of which high school to attend.

Town and Village

Town might get school-choice reprieve

An obscure section of state statute from 2006 could protect a unique school-choice setup

VERNON—Among all the students in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, only those in Vernon get to choose where they want to go to class starting in seventh grade.

While some head to Brattleboro with their peers from elsewhere in the union, others head south into Massachusetts—often to Pioneer Valley Regional School.

It’s an arrangement that could be threatened by new school-governance structures taking shape across Vermont under Act 46.

However, it now appears that Vernon’s unique school-choice setup may be codified in state law, possibly allowing the town’s school district a sort of exemption from concerns about mergers and choice that are affecting other districts.

If that turns out to be true, it will be easier for Vernon to keep a school setup that officials believe benefits students and the town itself.

“One of the things that’s always attracted people ... is that Vernon had school choice,” Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert said. “We had people who would move here because they wanted to send their kids to a different school. And it does make for an additional factor in selling a home.”

Act 46, approved by the Legislature in 2015, pushes for formation of larger school districts as a way to reduce costs and equalize students’ opportunities. But the complexity of the changes called for under the law mirrors the complexity of the state’s current school-governance setup, and there have been many questions about the statute.

One of those issues is school choice.

In September, the state Board of Education issued guidance saying that “there is no authority in Act 46 that authorizes a newly formed district/preferred model to both operate and pay tuition for the same grade.”

What that theoretically means is that, if schools in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union were merging into one new district under the state’s “preferred model” of governance, Vernon could not keep its grade 7-12 school choice setup while other towns in the new district had no school choice for those same grades.

And that’s a problem, because officials are, in fact, studying the possible merger of all Windham Southeast districts under the “accelerated” schedule in Act 46.

That’s not to say Vernon doesn’t have other options under Act 46, as officials simply could choose to look elsewhere for mergers with districts that are more similarly structured in terms of school choice. But for Hebert, “it’s a real dilemma,” because he’s satisfied with the way Windham Southeast operates.

“If we are able to keep school choice, I’m perfectly happy to be with the supervisory union, because I think we have the highest-functioning supervisory union in the state,” Hebert said. “We were way ahead of people on getting group contracts. We were way ahead on doing group purchasing and centralizing special ed.”

It now seems there may be a way for Vernon to have its cake and eat it, too. In the process of researching the issue, officials have discovered statutory language that appears to have been designed to solidify and protect Vernon’s school choice structure.

A July memo from the state Office of Legislative Council cites the 2006 approval of Act 182, Section 28, authorizing a school district to be “both a member of a union high school district and concurrently to pay tuition for resident students in grades 7-12.”

“It is my understanding that this authority applies solely to Vernon and was not granted to, or requested by, any other member of the Brattleboro Union High School District (or any member of another union school district),” wrote Donna Russo-Savage, who was then with the Office of Legislative Council and now works for the Vermont Agency of Education.

That 2006 statute “grants formal, legislative approval to what appears to have been a long-standing practice” in Vernon, the memo says.

That has led some to conclude that Vernon appears to have a legally protected school-choice structure that applies to no other district in the state—a structure that may allow the district to retain that choice even under an Act 46 merger setup that would not otherwise allow it.

While emphasizing that Windham Southeast has not yet submitted any formal merger proposal for the state Board of Education’s review, board Chairman Stephan Morse said “the general consensus is that Vernon is unique.”

Ron Stahley, Windham Southeast superintendent, said he is aware of the legal language regarding Vernon’s school choice. Stahley said it’s possible that “Act 46 was not intended to change that particular arrangement,” and he said the matter came up at a recent meeting of Windham Southeast’s merger study committee.

“We had discussions about this,” Stahley said. “None of the other districts questioned it.”

That doesn’t mean someone won’t question it, though. Russo-Savage’s July memo, after outlining the Vernon choice law, calls into question its long-term viability: “Although legislatively authorized in this one, narrow instance, it is unclear whether the Vermont Supreme Court would find the limited nature of the provision permissible if the provision’s constitutionality were challenged.”

That worries Hebert, who wants more research and stronger assurances.

If Vernon’s school board is going to endorse any merger scenario, “we need something more than, ’We think,’” Hebert said.

“I’ve been advising our board that we have to go cautiously and not get tied into something that’s going to take (choice) away,” Hebert said. “But, ultimately, the vote to be in this new district is going to be done by the townspeople.”

“There are a lot of questions to all of this,” he added. “It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take some tough decisions.”

The same may apply to Act 46 as a whole, as some legislators and Gov. Peter Shumlin have called for revisions to school-spending thresholds in the law.

For his part, Hebert—who’s also a Republican state representative for Vernon and Guilford—thinks the Legislature may have acted too quickly in approving Act 46’s sweeping school changes in the last session.

“My own personal opinion is, we should have taken the full biennium to do it—not try to rush it through in one session,” Hebert said. “Whenever you rush legislation, you always sit back and say, ‘Look at all the unintended consequences,’ and then you have to go back and fix them.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #338 (Wednesday, January 6, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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