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Act 46 vote timing prompts concerns

Questions center on possible confusion, vote glut with merger and Vernon exit on election-day ballot

BRATTLEBORO—Voters in four Windham Southeast Supervisory Union towns finally have an official date — Nov. 8 — when they’ll consider merging their school districts.

On the same day, those voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney also will be deciding whether to allow Vernon out of a regional high school union.

Though the matters are related, the plan to present two complex educational questions simultaneously is generating some concern.

Town clerks are worried about an increased workload during an already busy election, and state education officials have raised questions about voter confusion.

But those who have fashioned the merger proposal say there are good reasons to go ahead with a November vote — not the least of which is the nine months of intense debate that shaped the plan.

“We’ve put together a document by hours upon hours of study and thought and looking at what is best for our children,” said Jill Stahl Tyler, a Brattleboro representative on the supervisory union’s Act 46 Study Committee.

Charged questions

Act 46, the 2015 state law pushing for consolidation of Vermont’s small school districts, was the impetus behind merger talks that began last fall in Windham Southeast.

Those discussions often have been contentious. Aside from general worries about a loss of local control, there also were concerns about the fate of Vernon’s unique school-choice setup, which would be jeopardized by a merger with the other Windham Southeast districts that don’t offer such options.

Vernon earlier this year walked away from the Act 46 Study Committee, derailing an “accelerated” merger plan that would have required a vote by the end of June in all five towns.

Then, in August, Vernon voters overwhelmingly decided to leave the Brattleboro Union High School District. The move allows Vernon to find its own Act 46 solutions, while leaving the other four towns free to pursue a school merger on their own.

All of those pieces are now supposed to fall into place on Nov. 8.

Vernon can’t officially leave the regional union until its exit is approved by the other towns, so voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney will weigh in on that question on Election Day.

Also, they’ll be determining whether their four towns’ school districts should merge into one. If approved by all four towns, the new Windham Southeast Unified Union School District will begin operations July 1, 2017.

Additionally, voters on Nov. 8 will elect members of a new, nine-member board that would oversee the merged districts’ schools.

The Act 46 Study Committee paved the way for those latter two votes at an Aug. 25 meeting by approving “articles of agreement” — in other words, a proposed merger plan — that will be submitted to the state Board of Education for review.

“Congratulations, everyone,” committee Chairwoman Alice Laughlin of Putney said after the articles were approved. “It’s been a very long road. And the road’s not over.”

Towns plan public forums

It will now fall to committee members and Windham Southeast administrators to educate voters on the impacts of Vernon’s union exit and the merger proposal.

Public forums will be held in each town. At this point, informational meetings are set for Sept. 21 and Oct. 19 in Brattleboro; Sept. 22 in Putney; Oct. 3 in Guilford; and Oct. 11 in Dummerston.

“I want it to be a knowledgeable vote — an informed vote,” Stahl Tyler said.

It also may be an emotional vote, as it’s clear that there are some who still oppose the plan.

Proponents say a unified Windham Southeast district will save money, reduce taxes, and equalize educational opportunity, and the plan guarantees no school closures in the first five years unless a school’s host town approves it.

But skeptical questions at the Aug. 25 meeting touched on topics including debt obligations, property use, school-closure authority, and fair representation on a consolidated board.

The study committee’s vote to approve the articles of agreement was unanimous, but one member spoke against the merger plan. “I don’t believe, personally, that a merger is in the best interest of our communities,” said Ian Torrey, a Brattleboro representative. “But I think it’s something that should go to a vote of the people.”

There also was debate about when that vote should happen. Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said he’d recently heard from state Agency of Education officials who were concerned about holding the Vernon exit and school merger votes on the same day.

“They’re leaving it up to us, but I think they’re encouraging us to do separate votes,” Stahley said.

Agency of Education spokeswoman Haley Dover confirmed that, while “the timing of the votes is the study committee’s decision, there was discussion about whether having the votes on the same day could be confusing for voters.”

“It is not the state’s role to advise study committees, but to provide factual information about the law,” Dover added.

Fears of ‘a messy ballot’

Some study committee members shared the state’s worry. Dummerston representative Kristina Naylor said she was “concerned about a messy ballot,” and Laughlin initially proposed moving the merger vote to January — in part to give voters more time to digest merger information.

Laughlin also said some town clerks have questioned the school votes’ timing. One of them is longtime Brattleboro Town Clerk Annette Cappy who, in the aftermath of the Act 46 committee’s meeting, said she was “very disappointed” with the decision to hold a Nov. 8 vote.

In terms of voter turnout, “this presidential election has the potential to be the largest election we have ever seen,” Cappy said.

Counting large numbers of ballots will be aided by electronic tabulators, Cappy said. But unless the school-related ballots are submitted in a tabulator-friendly format, officials will be forced to count them by hand, she said.

“It’s not that clerks are afraid of the extra work,” Cappy said. “We’re accustomed to that. But this is really an extreme burden on top of a 16-hour day.”

Nevertheless, a majority of Act 46 Study Committee members decided to put everything to a vote on Election Day. For some, there’s a sense of urgency, given that members of the new, unified board will have to come up with a fiscal year 2018 budget and then take it to the towns for a vote.

Also, some say there’s a golden opportunity to take advantage of a presidential election. Guilford representative Alice Revis said that, while she has empathy for town clerks’ workload, “if we put [a vote] off, we’re also taking the chance of getting less turnout.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #372 (Wednesday, August 31, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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