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State Rep. Mike Hebert (R-Vernon).

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State rep questions integrity of Act 46 merger talks

Hebert issues public-records request over concerns about transparency of WSESU consolidation studies

BRATTLEBORO—Rep. Mike Hebert was no fan of Vermont’s new education-governance law when his colleagues approved it last year.

Now, the Vernon Republican is questioning the transparency and integrity of the process by which Act 46 is being implemented in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, which includes his two-town district.

Hebert is concerned enough that, on March 23, he submitted a public-records request for all written and electronic communications among representatives of Windham Southeast; the supervisory union’s Act 46 Study Committee; the state Agency of Education; and other entities.

“The (supervisory union’s) four outlying towns have serious concerns,” Hebert said. “I just want to be sure we can make this process as transparent as we can.”

Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said he will try to comply with Hebert’s request, though it will take time due to the volume of material involved. In the meantime, both Stahley and Alice Laughlin, a Putney resident who chairs the study committee, are defending the tone and structure of Act 46 deliberations here.

“I think we’ve been very transparent—the fact that the meetings have been recorded, and we have excellent minutes,” Laughlin said. “We’re beginning to consolidate information to put on the website so folks can be really well-educated. It’s really hard [for observers] to understand the process, though, because there’s so much for the study committee to consider.”

Brattleboro-based Windham Southeast also includes Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon, each of which has its own school and board. In terms of enrollment, it is one of the largest supervisory unions in the state.

Act 46 pushes for formation of larger, consolidated districts as a way to save money and equalize student opportunity. The Windham Southeast Act 46 Study Committee has been examining the possibility of an “accelerated” merger of all the union’s school districts into one consolidated district governed by one board.

That would be the most-lucrative merger option for local taxpayers due to state tax incentives built into Act 46. But it also would require a vote by June 30, and some say that’s too soon given lingering questions about finances, school closure and school choice. A March 17 visit from state Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe brought many of those questions to the forefront.

In addition to his work as a legislator, Hebert chairs the school board in Vernon, where many are worried about maintaining a unique school-choice setup that allows students to attend districts other than Brattleboro starting in seventh grade. Some argue that, by continuing to consider an accelerated merger that could end that choice arrangement, the study committee hasn't heeded Vernon’s concerns.

“They’re truly not taking input from the boards,” Hebert said. He added that, though the Act 46 committee has some autonomy, “that doesn’t give you the power of a dictator. You have to listen to your local school board.”

Hebert said a loss of local input and control is a key Act 46 concern for school officials statewide. He believes the Windham Southeast talks have reinforced that fear.

“No matter what the conversation is, they bring it back around to the accelerated [merger],” Hebert said.

Furthermore, Hebert said he has heard concerns that decisions about Windham Southeast’s merger process are happening outside public meetings. Hebert said he issued a public-records request for correspondence because “I want to see what back-channel things are going on prior to the meetings.”

Hebert acknowledged that he hasn't attended Act 46 Study Committee meetings, mostly due to his obligations in Montpelier. He has tried to keep up with the committee’s work, though he said it has been difficult. “Reading the minutes, there’s not a lot of information in the minutes,” Hebert said. “When you see meetings on [Brattleboro Community Television], there’s not a lot of opportunity for public comment.”

Stahley says there has been no attempt to stifle public comment or to make decisions behind closed doors.

“I feel that the work of the study committee has been open and transparent,” he said. “There have been some [public] subcommittee meetings, which I think have been critical to kind of weed through a mass of information.”

He also pointed out that there has been public discussion of multiple merger possibilities. “When we were discussing other alternatives ... we had a big matrix looking at all of those different options, and we shared all of that,” Stahley said.

He said circumstances have been changing rapidly for the study committee in recent weeks. In the wake of receiving new information from the state about Vernon’s school choice, officials have scrambled to develop revised plans for possible mergers.

One new proposal calls for an accelerated merger vote with a built-in allowance for an alternative merger structure if one or two towns don’t approve consolidation of the entire supervisory union. “Those sorts of things came together pretty quickly,” Stahley said, adding that it isn't yet clear whether the committee will pursue such a vote.

If an accelerated merger process moves forward, Laughlin pledged that the study committee will hold community forums in each town.

The fact that an accelerated merger is still on the table in any form is problematic for some, including Hebert. But even though some study committee members say the quickest merger option may no longer be feasible in Windham Southeast, Laughlin said there are still supporters of the concept.

“There is definitely a significant portion of the study committee that does want to put that [accelerated] consideration before their voters,” Laughlin said. “It’s hard for folks to tolerate the opinions of others when passions are so strong. But I think we’ve done a very good job of being respectful.”

There is a “clear process” laid out by the state for the study committee’s work, she added. “It’s a very democratic process, and we need to keep that at the forefront of our agenda.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #350 (Wednesday, March 30, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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