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Vernon votes to exit BUHS District No. 6

VERNON—Voters on Tuesday approved pulling out of the regional Brattleboro Union High School District, a move that allows Vernon to try to preserve its unique choice options for middle- and high-schoolers.

By a tally of 374 for and 124 against, voters supported withdrawing from the district known as BUHS District No. 6.

“I am pleased to have the continued support for our school by the residents of Vernon,” School Board Chair Mike Hebert said Tuesday night. “Now the board has a great deal of work to do in order to move forward with a comprehensive education plan which will have the best interests of our students, staff, and taxpayers at its core.

“We are looking forward to a continued positive relationship with our neighboring towns as they move forward with their Act 46 activities."

Vernon’s vote isn’t the final say on the matter, however.

The other four towns in the union — Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney — must vote in November on whether Vernon can exit the union, and the state also must sign off on the move.

Tuesday’s vote was spurred by continuing debate about how Vernon fits into any proposed school-district merger under Act 46, the 2015 state law that pushes for larger, consolidated districts throughout Vermont.

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union officials spent months studying a proposed merger of all the union’s school districts. But Vernon’s representatives walked away from that study earlier this year, citing concerns about the merger process and about the town’s school-choice setup.

Vernon operates its own elementary school. Starting in seventh grade, Vernon students can be tuitioned to schools other than Brattleboro, with a popular alternative destination being Pioneer Valley Regional in Gill, Massachusetts.

A merger with the other Windham Southeast districts, which don’t allow such options, would jeopardize Vernon’s school choice. State education officials have said merging districts must adopt the same structure when it comes to the grades for which they operate schools or tuition students.

So that left Vernon and the other Windham Southeast districts at an impasse, given that they are legally bound together in the BUHS District.

Leaving the district would resolve that impasse. Vernon officials could seek an Act 46 option that preserves its school choice, while representatives of the other school districts would be free to study a merger among themselves.

If Vernon is allowed to depart the district, the town’s students still would be able to attend Brattleboro Area Middle School and Brattleboro Union High School via a tuition arrangement. Most Vernon students currently choose Brattleboro, and officials have said they don’t envision that changing.

Officials also have said they don’t expect any significant, negative financial impacts to either Vernon School District or the remaining union members if Vernon leaves BUHS. The idea is that Vernon would craft an ongoing, contractual agreement for services with the larger, unified district in the Brattleboro area — services such as special education and professional development.

But Vernon also would have to try to convince state officials that the school district can maintain independent governance and still meet the requirements of Act 46.

“We want to form an independent, alternative district,” Hebert said in a June interview.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #369 (Wednesday, August 10, 2016). This story appeared on page A3.

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