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Vernon might go it alone

School Board schedules vote on leaving Brattleboro Union High School District

VERNON—Having rejected Act 46 merger talks in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, Vernon officials now are asking voters whether the town’s school district should strike out on its own.

On Aug. 9, Vernon voters will consider pulling out of the regional Brattleboro Union High School District. If the measure is approved, the town would be exiting a five-town educational union that has existed for more than a half-century.

Officials say the change wouldn’t impact Vernon Elementary School students, as they would still be able to attend Brattleboro’s middle and high schools if they chose — albeit under a new tuition arrangement.

But exiting the union would have an impact at the administrative level: The rest of Windham Southeast would be free to pursue a merger under Act 46, while Vernon would be able to seek an option that allows the town to preserve its coveted school-choice setup.

“For us, school choice is important,” said Vernon School Board Chair Mike Hebert. “We believe it’s in the best interest of our students.”

Hebert added that the board will be holding two public informational sessions — the dates of which will be announced via a mailer — to answer questions prior to the August vote.

“It sounds very simple, but it’s actually a very complicated issue,” he said.

Merger controversy

Merger talks have been complicated from the outset in Windham Southeast, which includes schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon.

Act 46, approved by the state Legislature in 2015, pushes for larger, consolidated school districts throughout Vermont. A study committee in Windham Southeast spent months looking closely at an Act 46 “accelerated merger” of all districts in the union; under that plan, each school would have remained open but would have been governed by a single board.

Accelerated merger advocates touted state tax incentives, operational cost reductions and greater educational equity — a key goal of Act 46. But the proposal was controversial, with some questioning the transparency of the process and the potential loss of local control.

Vernon officials protested the most, since it seemed clear that the town would lose its unique school-choice options under a merger with other Windham Southeast districts.

Starting in seventh grade, Vernon students currently can be tuitioned to schools other than Brattleboro, and some attend nearby Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts.

Vernon eventually pulled out of Windham Southeast merger talks. Amid the ensuing confusion, leaders of the Act 46 committee acknowledged that they couldn’t meet a June 30 deadline for member towns to vote on an accelerated merger.

A way forward?

Since then, Act 46 merger discussions have continued in Windham Southeast, but Vernon representatives haven’t returned to their seats on the study committee.

The upcoming vote in Vernon — approved June 27 by the town school board — appears to be a way to possibly resolve that impasse.

The problem is that Vernon and the other towns currently are bound together in the Brattleboro Union High School District, also known as BUHS District No. 6.

“As long as Vernon’s a member of BUHS, legally, you can’t do anything in Windham Southeast unless Vernon votes on it,” Chris Leopold, a Burlington attorney consulting on the local merger talks, told the Act 46 committee at a recent meeting.

So the current, multistep plan looks like this: If Vernon voters decide on Aug. 9 to leave the BUHS union, the other four towns would be allowed to vote in November on whether to approve Vernon’s departure and also on whether to form a new, consolidated school district among themselves.

The state Board of Education also must weigh in on both of those issues.

Hebert said he’s in favor of Vernon leaving the BUHS union. Becoming an “independent district” keeps the town’s school choice in place, he said, while also preserving the town school board, its budgetary authority, and ownership of the Vernon Elementary building.

Vernon students still would be able to attend Brattleboro’s middle and high schools, Hebert said, since the town school district would be contracting with Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

“Historically, 75 to 80 percent of our students have gone to Brattleboro,” he said. “We see no reason why that should change.”

Questions remain

But there are many issues for officials and residents to consider. At a June 16 Act 46 Study Committee meeting, Leopold said Vernon’s upcoming vote could break new ground.

“There is no school district in Vermont that has voted and left a union school district since the current statutory scheme went into place ... it goes back to the late 1960s, early 1970s,” Leopold said. “There’s very little history here.”

Financial questions are a big part of the union-departure debate. Officials have been weighing Vernon’s interest in BUHS assets, its share of debt related to the high school, and its future tuition payments if it pulls out of the union.

Preliminarily, it appears that it all would add up to “kind of a wash,” Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said. By that, he means that officials expect no significant, negative financial impact for Vernon or for the districts that would remain in the reconfigured BUHS No. 6.

Hebert confirmed that, for Vernon, it appears that “we could do this at a not-significant amount of cost to the town.”

But at the study committee meeting earlier this month, Windham Southeast Business Administrator Frank Rucker cautioned that these are only estimates. “This is what would need to be analyzed and agreed to” among the school districts, Rucker said.

There’s also the question of what Vernon could do as an independent district to meet the goals of Act 46. It’s possible Vernon officials could seek to merge with other districts that have similar school-choice setups, but that could be difficult geographically, Hebert said.

He’s hoping that, ultimately, the state Board of Education and Agency of Education will see fit to allow Vernon to remain unaffiliated. “We want to form an independent, alternative district,” he said.

Stahley, who has advocated for the benefits of consolidation in Windham Southeast, said he still would like Vernon to join the other districts in a possible regional merger. But he also understands Vernon officials’ desire to gauge their citizens’ appetite to leave the union.

“I think in the long run, if they do this, and in a year or two or three they feel like it’s better to join a unified district, we would welcome them,” Stahley said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #364 (Wednesday, July 6, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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