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Act 46 vote Dec. 13

Voters in Windham Southeast member towns will decide whether to allow Vernon to withdraw from school district

BRATTLEBORO—The middle of December may not be the most ideal time to hold an important, four-town vote on a somewhat complex education issue.

But Windham Southeast Supervisory Union officials are hoping for a strong turnout on Dec. 13 as voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney decide whether to allow Vernon to leave a regional school union.

Officials are making a last-minute push to educate the public, with forums happening in each of the four voting towns this week.

While they’re not urging residents to vote one way or the other, Windham Southeast leaders seem to be in general agreement that allowing Vernon to go its own way may be the best thing for all of the involved towns.

“We’re working our way through it and trying to find the best solutions for everybody under the law,” said Amy Wall, a Dummerston resident and chairwoman of the Windham Southeast union’s board.

The law Wall references is Act 46, which pushes school districts statewide to merge into larger districts governed by a single board in an effort to cut costs and boost educational equity.

School-choice differences

Act 46 merger talks have been drawn-out and difficult in Windham Southeast. That’s in part because Vernon’s school-choice arrangement — which allows students to choose their school starting in seventh grade — isn’t shared by the other local districts.

State officials have said merging districts must adopt the same school-choice structure. So, when it became clear that Vernon wouldn’t be able to keep its choice options under a merger with the other Windham Southeast districts, Vernon officials withdrew from Act 46 talks.

That bogged down the supervisory union’s Act 46 negotiations until officials came up with a potential solution — Vernon could cut its legal ties to the regional Brattleboro Union High School District No. 6.

That would leave Vernon free to go its own way, and the other four towns could pursue a potential pre-K through grade 12 merger among themselves.

Vernon voters overwhelmingly OK’d the withdrawal in August. But Vernon can’t actually leave the district unless each of the other towns ratifies the withdrawal by voting “yes” on Dec. 13.

In advance of the vote, Vernon and BUHS No. 6 officials drew up a withdrawal agreement. A key provision of that deal is that no exchange of money is required, since Vernon’s debt to the regional district and the assets it would be relinquishing have been characterized as “a wash.”

Potential tuition agreement

Also, officials have said they still expect that most Vernon students will continue to attend Brattleboro’s middle and high schools. If Vernon withdraws from the district, that would happen via a tuition agreement.

“There’s really no reason not to let us out — no practical reason,” said Mike Hebert, Vernon School Board chairman.

Alice Laughlin, a Putney resident who chairs the Windham Southeast Act 46 Study Committee, seconded that sentiment. “Voting yes [on Dec. 13] is hugely important for Vernon and has little, if any, practical repercussions for Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney,” Laughlin said.

A “no” vote in any of the towns, however, likely would throw a wrench into Windham Southeast’s Act 46 planning.

Vernon would be forced to stay in the BUHS No. 6 district and might be worked back into the other towns’ school merger plans in some way, potentially delaying a four-town merger vote tentatively planned for March 7, 2017.

Informational campaign

Officials are mounting a public outreach campaign in advance of the Dec. 13 balloting, including an informational flier that will be sent to voters.

“Our hope is to pull in people who haven’t had time to attend study committee meetings,” Wall said.

Hebert said a Vernon representative will be available to answer questions at each of those meetings. The sessions also could help boost election turnout, though Hebert is concerned that the showing could be “very sparse” for special balloting held a dozen days before Christmas.

Laughlin said Dec. 13 “is an unfortunate time for a vote, but it was the only sensible option due to timing constraints.” She’s hoping for a “reasonable turnout” driven by interest in education and the future of the five towns.

“We need to respect our differing priorities, histories, and cultures and acknowledge that, while change can be excruciatingly hard, it provides opportunity,” Laughlin said. “Going to the polls on Dec. 13 is one clear way to do that.”

In the end, Laughlin said, “this is a rather simple vote after many, many months of complicated conversations.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #386 (Wednesday, December 7, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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