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Members of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee look over proposed school-merger information on May 4 at Academy School in Brattleboro.

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Schools end pursuit of ‘accelerated’ merger

Five towns in Windham Southeast abandon fast-track process toward consolidated school district amid confusion about process under Act 46

BRATTLEBORO—Residents in five Windham County towns won’t be voting on formation of a new, consolidated school district next month.

Officials on Tuesday cited unanswered legal questions as a key reason why they are stopping work on an Act 46 “accelerated” merger of all school districts in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. Such a merger would have required a vote in each town by June 30.

Merger talks will continue in some form in Windham Southeast, given Act 46’s push for larger school districts throughout the state.

But Tuesday’s news means there no longer is pressure for a quick vote on what had become a divisive, controversial consolidation plan.

“We need more clarification from [the state] and time with our legal counsel on timing and options,” said Ron Stahley, Windham Southeast superintendent.

The decision is welcome news for Vernon School Board, which recently had pulled out of merger talks.

“We think it’s good that the process is going to slow down,” said Mike Hebert, the Vernon board’s chairman. “We’re happy to hear that.”

Larger tax breaks for quick mergers

Act 46, approved by the state Legislature in 2015, aims to cut school costs and equalize student opportunity via formation of larger school districts by 2019.

The state has offered tax breaks to merging districts, and the biggest incentives are associated with the accelerated merger option.

Windham Southeast’s Act 46 Study Committee has been meeting since last fall to plan for such a merger. The idea was to consolidate all school districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon into one new district governed by one board.

But there are time constraints associated with an accelerated merger, as voters in every affected town must approve it before the next fiscal year begins on July 1.

And Windham Southeast officials now acknowledge that they’ve run out of time to make it happen.

“Ron Stahley and I discussed the matter with legal counsel and determined it did not make practical sense to further attempt moving forward via the accelerated path,” said Alice Laughlin, a Putney resident who chairs the Act 46 Study Committee.

Lingering questions

One major hangup is Vernon’s exit from the study committee. Vernon officials last month said they could no longer participate in merger talks, in part due to concerns about losing the town’s unique school-choice setup for students beginning in seventh grade.

One big, lingering question for the remaining study committee members was whether there still could be an accelerated merger vote in Vernon. The committee asked the state Agency of Education for a legal opinion on Vernon’s withdrawal but has not yet received that advice.

Laughlin said there are other outstanding issues, including state questions about the committee’s proposed merger-article language.

The state Board of Education must approve the study committee’s merger plan before any vote happens in Windham Southeast towns. But Laughlin confirmed that “we are not presenting our report to the [board] on May 17,” as had been planned.

The Act 46 Study Committee has canceled its May 11 meeting and isn’t scheduled to meet again until May 26. By that time, committee members expect to have gotten more answers from the state.

“We’ve asked legal counsel to research several additional issues for the committee as well, and he will be at our next meeting to discuss these and address all active committee concerns so that we can move forward,” Laughlin said.

But all of that will happen too late to get a merger vote done by the end of June. Hebert believes the delay “will turn out to be in everybody’s best interest” because he believes area districts need time to pursue alternate school-merger structures.

Hebert expects to ask Windham Southeast’s towns to consider voting Vernon out of the Brattleboro Union High School district. He believes such a legal maneuver would allow Vernon to preserve its school-choice arrangement, though he acknowledges that “it is an extraordinarily complex issue” that requires further research.

“What we have to find out is the financial impact to all of our [school] partners and also the financial impact to Vernon,” Hebert said.

On the slow path

It is unclear what shape merger talks may now take in Windham Southeast.

“We certainly considered taking the slower path — the conventional merger approach — and we will discuss this path and, perhaps, others at the next meeting,” Laughlin said Tuesday.

But Laughlin also added that “it is unfortunate that the voters were not given the opportunity to consider the [accelerated] merger at the end of June.”

She still believes the union-wide merger offers many educational benefits. The study committee saw “value in creating a governance and organizational structure that provides long-term stability to keep property [taxes] reasonable and small schools open and thriving.”

“Proceeding via the accelerated path was appealing, as we estimated around $1 million in tax relief and transitional funds with this approach,” Laughlin said. “It would have been irresponsible not to have offered such a path to the electorate.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #356 (Wednesday, May 11, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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