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Vernon bows out of Act 46 talks

As an Act 46 study committee in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union continues to examine an ‘accelerated’ merger of all union districts, Vernon School Board members say they’ll no longer participate due to concerns about school choice, other issues

VERNON—After months of simmering tensions, Vernon School Board’s frustrations boiled over as members voted unanimously April 25 to “withdraw immediately” from Act 46 merger studies in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

Vernon officials cited ongoing concerns about local budgetary control; future school closures; and the fate of the town’s unique school-choice arrangement. Board Chairman Mike Hebert said the vote should be seen as a rejection of the Act 46 Study Committee’s continued consideration of a union-wide merger on an accelerated schedule.

“We want to reset and look at the whole process,” Hebert said. “We’re just saying, ‘Get it right.’”

The Vernon board’s vote comes at a critical time, as the supervisory union’s study committee puts finishing touches on a proposed merger agreement that could go to a vote before June 30.

Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley could not be reached for comment the day after the Vernon vote. But the matter is expected to come up at a study committee meeting scheduled for April 27 in Brattleboro — a meeting at which, according to Hebert, Vernon’s chairs will be empty.

Act 46, approved by the state Legislature last year, is aimed at cutting costs and equalizing student opportunity as Vermont’s public school enrollment continues to decline. The statute pushes for formation of larger, consolidated school districts statewide by 2019.

The fastest merger path — and the one carrying the most state tax incentives — is called the “accelerated” option and calls for a vote in all affected towns before the current fiscal year ends on June 30. In Windham Southeast, an Act 46 Study Committee has been working for months on a possible accelerated merger of all districts into a new, unified body governed by a single board.

Advocates say the proposed Windham Southeast School District would result in “immediate annual cost reductions of approximately $100,000” while also creating a more unified, stronger educational program throughout the towns of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon.

But the process has been controversial, with some arguing that the merger study is moving too fast and without adequate public input. Hebert, who also is a state lawmaker representing Vernon and Guilford, has been an outspoken critic.

Those themes continued April 25 in Vernon as the town school board convened a special meeting with Vernon Selectboard to discuss Act 46 concerns.

At the top of the list was Vernon’s school-choice setup, which allows students to be tuitioned to districts other than Brattleboro starting in seventh grade. The school could lose its choice options if it merges with districts — such as its neighbors in Windham Southeast — that don’t have those options.

There have been attempts to craft merger language that would preserve Vernon school choice for a certain period of time. But Vernon officials are not satisfied.

“We want the best opportunities, educationally, for our children,” Hebert said. “That’s why I fight so hard for school choice. I think that gives a lot of opportunity.”

Hebert raised the possibility of consolidation options that could preserve choice in Vernon, such as a side-by-side merger with another town that operates only an elementary school. “These are things that have not been put out on the table and strongly considered, because we’ve been on this accelerated path,” he said.

School choice aside, there are general concerns about a loss of local control if Vernon school governance is handled by a larger, regional board. While the current draft version of Windham Southeast’s articles of agreement almost rule out school closures for the first five years after a merger, Vernon officials worry about what will happen after that.

There are financial concerns, as well. Hebert is skeptical about the benefits of the state’s Act 46 merger tax breaks, and he’s also unclear about whether a Vermont Yankee-related property tax break — now scheduled to be phased out by 2019 — would disappear immediately if the Vernon school district merges.

Monday’s meeting also featured complaints about the Act 46 study process in Windham Southeast. Deb Hebert, Mike Hebert’s wife and a fellow Vernon school board member, said she has many merger questions but has not been able to get clear answers during study committee meetings.

“I have absolutely no faith in anything that they’re doing,” she said.

And both Heberts said a proposed two-tier merger vote — featuring formation of a “modified union school district” if a town or two votes against the full, unionwide school district — could confuse voters and bring Vernon’s school under new supervision regardless of the outcome.

“This is a confusing issue to start with,” Mike Hebert said. “The electorate is not going to know what this is.”

So Vernon wants out, at least for now. After lengthy deliberations at the April 25 meeting, Vernon School Board members voted unanimously to “withdraw immediately from the Act 46 Study Committee.”

The motion also notes that “Vernon School District shall not be a member of any Act 46 district in which Vernon is only an advisable district.” Hebert later clarified that he believes Vernon should be a “necessary” rather than an “advisable” district, as being labeled “necessary” would give its decisions much more weight in the merger process.

The members of the Vernon Selectboard who spoke at the April 25 meeting seemed to share the school board’s concerns. Some Vernon officials believe withdrawing from accelerated merger talks is one way to regain some control over the process.

Currently, “it almost sounds like we can’t make our own decision,” Selectboard member Emily Vergobbe said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #354 (Wednesday, April 27, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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