BRATTLEBORO—A long-planned Act 46 merger vote has been delayed once again in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
Just a few weeks after setting a Nov. 8 vote on the merger of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney school districts, the union’s Act 46 Study Committee decided to push that ballot question all the way to Town Meeting Day 2017.
Officials also decided to reschedule a Nov. 8 vote on allowing Vernon to leave the regional high school union. That matter will be put to voters later this year or early next year, though an exact date hasn’t yet been set.
The decision to delay both ballot questions was in part a response to workload concerns raised by town clerks. It’s also an attempt to reduce voter confusion, given the complex educational issues at hand.
“The committee felt it gives them more time for public information about the benefits of a merger,” said Ron Stahley, Windham Southeast superintendent.
Timing has been an issue from the beginning of merger talks in Windham Southeast, which is one of Vermont’s largest supervisory unions in terms of student enrollment.
Months of study
The study committee spent months examining an “accelerated” merger of the five towns’ school districts. Under Act 46, the 2015 state law that pushes for school district consolidation across Vermont, an accelerated merger of all the union’s districts would have provided the biggest tax incentives.
But such a merger required a vote before July 1 of this year, and that effort fell apart after Vernon pulled out of Act 46 talks due to concerns about preserving the town’s school choice options.
Vernon voters subsequently approved departing from the Brattleboro Union High School District, a move that would free Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney to pursue a merger among themselves.
That set the stage for two Nov. 8 ballot questions: Voters in those four towns were scheduled to consider ratifying Vernon’s departure from the union, while also weighing in on whether their districts should join together under one governing board as of July 1, 2017.
On that same day, residents also were supposed to vote for members of a new, nine-member board that would oversee the merged district.
But again, timing was a problem. Even before the Act 46 Study Committee set those votes at a meeting in late August, state Agency of Education officials were raising questions about whether residents might be perplexed at seeing the Vernon and merger ballot questions on the same day.
Also, several town clerks had expressed concern about adding a significant amount of preparatory work and manual ballot counting on what promises to be a busy presidential Election Day.
“With the national election on Nov. 8, this puts a lot more work on the towns,” Stahley acknowledged.
He also noted that there would be little time in advance of the November election for school board candidates to gather signatures on nominating petitions.
So Windham Southeast’s Act 46 committee now has set the Act 46 merger vote for March 7. The Vernon union exit ratification vote will happen sometime before that — possibly as soon as December.
Holding those votes on different days might help alleviate confusion about two separate but related ballot questions. And school officials will have more time to educate the public about both issues.
Brattleboro Town Clerk Annette Cappy said she and her fellow clerks in Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney are “extremely relieved to not have a second and separate election held on the same day as the presidential [election].”
“We were grateful that the school directors and Act 46 committee [members] were willing to listen to us and hear our concerns,” Cappy said. “They were very willing to work with us and come to a mutually agreeable schedule.”
The delay also is a relief for those who have been skeptical of the Windham Southeast merger process. Dummerston resident Ines McGillion, a frequent and vocal critic of the study committee, likened the proposed merger to an “irreversible shotgun wedding” that will result in a loss of local control.
“A March vote is likely to produce a democratic result and will give towns the time to make educated, rational decisions, and an opportunity to press the reset button,” McGillion said.
For merger advocates, there is one potential downside to a March vote: If district consolidation is approved, there won’t be a lot of time to fashion a budget before the new district becomes operational July 1, the start of of fiscal year 2018.
But Stahley expressed optimism that timing won’t again become an issue in Windham Southeast.
“We would still need to develop individual district budgets [for fiscal 2018] and also a consolidated version, which in the first year wouldn’t have too many differences,” he said.