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Windham Southeast Act 46 study committee members to meet with Vernon School Board

PUTNEY—Members of the Act 46 study committee met for the first time since receiving a decision from the Vermont Department of Education on Vernon’s exit from the school merger process.

The study committee and the public crowded into a classroom at the Putney Central School for the May 26 meeting. Representatives from Vernon sat in the audience.

The committee includes school board members from Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and, until recently, Vernon. Under Act 46, the committee is tasked with developing a plan for merging the towns’ elementary schools into one large district governed by one school board.

Approved last year by the Legislature, the goal of Act 46 is to cut education costs while providing equal education opportunities for students amidst the state’s dwindling school enrollments.

The law also requires changes in school governance. The statute sets out a timeline and series of tax incentives pushing school boards to consolidate into larger districts by 2019.

Brattleboro Union High School District #6 is already considered a unified district.

The study committee worked for months building articles of agreement for a fast-track option available under Act 46 called an accelerated merger. The accelerated option requires that boards vote to create a larger unified union district by June 30. The faster time table carries the greatest financial incentives.

That plan changed in April, however, when the Vernon Town School Board voted to leave the study committee.

Withdrawing from the study committee is not only about school choice, Vernon School Board Chair Michael Hebert said. It is also about what he views as a loss of local control under Act 46.

“It is our role and our duty to protect the students and citizens of our town,” said Hebert, who also serves in the state Legislature.

Hebert went on to suggest different options for Vernon to belong to the unified district without losing school choice, such as partnering with Guilford or Dover.

Study committee member Jill Stahl Tyler of Brattleboro said she felt happy that Vernon’s reps sat in the audience, but that these conversations could have happened if the reps had stayed with the committee.

“We reached a point where it felt like out voices weren’t understood or heard,” Hebert responded. So, the school board chose a “dramatic action.”

Study Committee Chair Alice Laughlin said that she and four fellow committee members are scheduled to meet with the Vernon School Board on Tuesday, May 31, to discuss potential options and to listen to the board’s concerns.

Vernon is the only town amongst the five that offers school choice, starting in middle school.

According to discussions at the night’s meeting, Act 46 does not allow districts to contain a mix of school choice and non-school choice institutions.

To complicate matters, a few weeks after Vernon left the study committee, Holcombe sent a letter to Laughlin, saying that the Vernon School Board’s choice to leave the study committee did not affect the committee’s work.

Also, the study committee could still include Vernon in its final report to the School Board of Education, said Holcombe in the letter.

“The Vernon School Board has no legal authority to withdraw the Vernon School District, or the District’s statutorily appointed members, from the Windham Southeast SU Study Committee,” wrote Holcombe. “The Vernon School Board’s recent vote neither dissolves the Study Committee nor affects the nature of its work.”

“Because a school board has no authority to withdraw a district from a study committee that the district has formally joined, then nothing prohibits the study committee from naming the district as a ‘necessary district’ or an ‘advisable district’,” Holcombe wrote.

In her letter, Holcombe hoped that Vernon’s appointed representatives would continue to participate in the Act 46 process.

Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley provided a draft timeline for moving toward a unified union district.

He noted that the timeline operated on the assumption that Vernon was not part of the Unified District.

According to the timeline, the study committee would submit its articles of agreement for the proposed pre-K through 12th-grade unified district to the State Board of Education in July.

On Aug. 9, Vernon voters would decide whether to exit the BUHS Union. Hebert explained that for Vernon to stay out of the proposed unified district, the town also needed to leave the existing BUHS district.

Starting Aug. 16, the State Board of Education would review Vernon’s vote and the study committee’s unified union proposal.

By November, the remaining towns — Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney — would hold townwide votes on whether to approve creating a unified union and elect new board members.

If all the votes are in favor of unification, said Stahley, then in January 2017, work starts on the new union’s budget and other tasks necessary for establishing the new union. The unified school union would become operational on July 1, 2017.

After the meeting, Laughlin said the study committee’s work was going “as good as could be expected.”

People feel passionate about their town schools, she said. The committee has done its due diligence and research. It has explored dozens of merger options.

Ricky Davidson, a committee representative for Brattleboro, said, “This has been a very long process.”

Davidson also serves on the BUHS District #6 School Board.

BUHS is already a unified district, he said. The reps from the five towns have worked well together for years. He assumed the study committee’s work would also be smooth sailing.

The towns are very different from Brattleboro at the elementary school level, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #359 (Wednesday, June 1, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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