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Vernon strikes a deal to leave school district

Town plans to leave Brattleboro Union High School District amid concerns over Act 46, school choice

VERNON—School officials have reached an agreement that would allow Vernon to leave the Brattleboro Union High School regional district due to concerns about Act 46 and school choice.

While voters and state officials still have to sign off on the deal, a “withdrawal agreement” approved on Oct. 24 provides the framework for Vernon’s exit from the union.

Its most notable provision is that no financial exchange is required, since Vernon’s debt to the regional district and the assets it would be relinquishing are essentially “a wash.” That is just one detail that officials have been working through as they plan for an apparently unprecedented administrative maneuver.

“It’s very complicated, but I think everyone is giving this a fair hearing and figuring out how to do this,” said Mike Hebert, Vernon School Board chairman. “It’s a very unique situation.”

The situation has been prompted by Act 46, the 2015 law that pressures school districts statewide to consolidate in an attempt to improve educational equity and cut costs.

Unique school-choice setup

Initial Act 46 talks in Windham Southeast, which is one of the state’s largest supervisory unions in terms of enrollment, were aimed at merging districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon into one new district governed by one board.

But Vernon representatives eventually walked away from those talks due to concerns about preserving the town’s unique school-choice setup. Vernon is the only district in the BUHS District No. 6 union that allows its students to be tuitioned to schools other than Brattleboro, starting in seventh grade.

State officials have said that merging districts must have or adopt the same structure for operating schools or tuitioning students, meaning Vernon couldn’t maintain its choice options if its merger partners didn’t have a similar setup.

The proposed exit from BUHS No. 6 was conceived as a way for Vernon to pursue other Act 46 options while representatives from the other four towns continue to talk among themselves about a merger.

On Aug. 9, Vernon residents endorsed their district’s departure from the regional union on a 374-124 vote.

Tentatively, it appears voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney will consider ratifying that move with Australian ballot votes on Dec. 13, Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said.

The basis for that upcoming vote is a withdrawal agreement approved Oct. 24 by the Vernon and BUHS District No. 6 boards after a joint session in Vernon.

'No financial exchange'

Frank Rucker, Windham Southeast’s business administrator, said the agreement releases Vernon from any debt obligation to the regional district. At the same time, Rucker said, “Vernon will release all of its rights and claims” to the union district’s assets.

Those two provisions balance each other out, so Vernon’s withdrawal requires “no financial exchange from either district,” Stahley said.

Even if Vernon withdraws from the district, it’s expected that a majority of Vernon’s students still will come to Brattleboro once they finish elementary school in their hometown. Under the proposed new structure, that would happen via a tuition setup — a matter that’s also addressed in the new withdrawal agreement.

The agreement, should it be accepted by the other towns, also is subject to review by the state Agency of Education and the state Board of Education. Stahley expects that to happen by early 2017.

Hebert said Vernon School Board’s attorney has reviewed the withdrawal agreement. “He was very comfortable with the language, and both parties are adequately protected,” Hebert said.

That cautious approach is due in part to the fact that officials are in uncharted territory.

In June, a Burlington attorney who has consulted with Windham Southeast on Act 46 issues said there had been “no school district in Vermont that has voted and left a union school district since the current statutory scheme went into place.”

An unusual situation

Vernon almost had some company in Windham County, as Jamaica voters in July approved leaving the Leland & Gray regional school union. But that decision was reversed by a second vote held in September.

Given the novelty of the situation, Hebert expects that Vernon school officials will travel to upcoming public meetings in the other towns to answer questions about their district’s withdrawal. He wants to make it clear that school choice — not dissatisfaction with the supervisory union — is driving the proposed change.

“I think the only thing that would cause people to not let us out would be if they didn’t understand our motivations or didn’t understand the process,” Hebert said.

If Vernon is allowed to withdraw from the union, the town’s school board will still have some big issues to tackle. For example, officials are hoping Vernon School District could contract with the larger Windham Southeast entity for services like special education and professional development.

At this point, it’s expected that voters in the other four towns will decide on Town Meeting Day 2017 whether their school districts should merge.

“If our merger goes through, we would be advocating to have [Vernon] contracting with us,” Stahley said.

There’s also the question of Vernon’s fate under Act 46. It has been suggested that the district might get special dispensation from the state to remain independently governed, or else Vernon could find a merger partner that doesn't endanger its school choice options.

Hebert, who also represents Vernon and Guilford as a Republican state representative, speculates that Act 46 could be modified during the 2017 session. That might give Vernon more wiggle room.

“There are a lot of what-ifs in this whole package,” Hebert said. “But I think the biggest is, what is the Legislature going to do?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #381 (Wednesday, November 2, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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