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Vernon must remain in BUHS district

Dummerston rejects exit plan, which required unanimous 5-town vote; Brattleboro, Guilford, Putney vote yes in low-turnout referendum

BRATTLEBORO—Vernon won’t be leaving a regional school union, in spite of the town’s wishes to do so.

In a Dec. 13 four-town election to decide whether Vernon School District could withdraw from Brattleboro Union High School District No. 6 — which Vernon voters approved in August — the town of Dummerston voted against the move on a tally of 100 “no” votes and 84 “yes” votes.

Though Brattleboro, Guilford, and Putney joined Vernon to allow that town’s exit from the district, the change required unanimous approval among the towns.

So Dummerston’s rejection — unless it is later reversed in a revote — means Vernon stays in the union.

And that may throw Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s already contentious Act 46 school merger talks into further disarray.

Vernon steadfast on school choice

Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert said he thought Act 46 politics played a role in the outcome.

“We’re extremely disappointed, because I think Dummerston used us to try and stop a merger they don’t want to be in. We are kind of a pawn in this whole thing,” he said.

Hebert added that Vernon School Board members will discuss the town’s options.

He promised one thing: Vernon will not entertain any consolidation plan that jeopardizes the town’s school choice options.

“We certainly are not going to go back into the [Windham Southeast] merger discussions,” he said. “If we go back into the study group, we will give up school choice. And we are not going to do that.”

Act 46 prompts the vote

The vote was made necessary by a series of events related to Act 46, the controversial 2015 state law that pushes for school districts statewide to consolidate. The goal is to equalize educational opportunities and reduce costs.

Act 46 talks have been rocky in Windham Southeast, which is one of the state’s largest supervisory unions in terms of student enrollment.

A study committee spent months examining a merger of all of the union’s districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon. But Vernon withdrew from those talks when it became clear that the town would not be able to maintain its unique school choice options under such a merger.

The proposed solution to the impasse was for Vernon to withdraw from the Brattleboro Union High School district. That would have allowed Vernon to pursue its own Act 46 solutions, while officials in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney could continue planning a merger for those four towns.

Assets, liabilities ‘a wash,’ supervisory union says

Beyond the Act 46 implications, officials said there would be little practical impact to Vernon’s withdrawal.

Windham Southeast administrators said no exchange of money would be required, since Vernon’s debt to the regional district and the assets it would be relinquishing have been characterized as “a wash.”

Also, officials have said they expected a majority of Vernon students to continue to attend Brattleboro’s middle and high schools via a tuition agreement.

There were, however, lingering questions raised by some about the effects of Vernon’s withdrawal and Act 46 plans in Windham Southeast.

In August, Vernon voters approved the withdrawal from BUHS District No. 6 by a 374-124 margin. But the other four towns each had to ratify the move on Dec. 13.

In the run-up to that vote, officials worked to get the word out and educate residents about the issue. Those efforts included a mailer and meetings held in each of the four towns.

That led to affirmative votes in Brattleboro (162-101); Guilford (55-36); and Putney (88-40). But Dummerston’s vote turned out to be the one that mattered most.

Dummerston resident Jody Normandeau, who has been a critic of Act 46 merger talks in Windham Southeast, said she was “torn” about allowing Vernon to withdraw.

Normandeau did not disclose how she voted on the matter. She said she understands Vernon’s school choice predicament but also has doubts about whether the withdrawal would truly be “a wash.”

Told of Hebert’s reaction to Dummerston’s vote, Normandeau blamed Act 46 for such strife and said she hopes the state Legislature will amend the law in 2017.

“This is what Act 46 has done to all of us,” Normandeau said. “Act 46 has pitted town against town and has torn this whole district apart.”

Alice Laughlin, a Putney resident who chairs Windham Southeast’s Act 46 Study Committee, said she’s “pretty confident” that a sufficient number of Dummerston residents will request a second vote on the matter.

The vote tally “suggests to me that Dummerston needs to learn more about why there are benefits to allowing Vernon to withdraw,” Laughlin said.

If the results stand, however, Laughlin and others involved in Act 46 merger talks will have to determine how to move forward — possibly with Vernon in the mix in some way. Laughlin said she’s optimistic a solution can be found.

“I think it’s more work, but I’m not seeing that this is the end of the process,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #387 (Wednesday, December 14, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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