DUMMERSTON—There will be yet another chapter in the long-running saga of Vernon and Act 46.
A new vote has been scheduled for Feb. 21 in Dummerston to determine whether Vernon can leave a regional school union due to concerns about the state’s education governance law.
In December, Dummerston was the only town voting against Vernon’s proposed exit from Brattleboro Union High School District No. 6. That threw a wrench into Act 46 merger negotiations throughout Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
Now, it will be up to proponents of the change to again try to make their case — and to boost last month’s dismal voter turnout.
“It’s going to behoove us to get people out,” said Mike Hebert, Vernon School Board chairman.
Act 46, the 2015 law that pushes for school district consolidation throughout Vermont, has caused controversy in Windham Southeast. Months of talks aimed at unifying districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon were derailed last year when Vernon representatives withdrew from the Act 46 study committee.
That decision came when officials realized Vernon wouldn’t be able to maintain its unique school-choice setup under the Windham Southeast merger proposal. Vernon officials repeatedly have said they won’t sacrifice their district’s school-choice options.
The impasse led to a plan to allow Vernon to sever its legal ties to the regional school union known as BUHS District No. 6. Theoretically, that would free Vernon to pursue its own Act 46 plan, and Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney officials would be free to consider a merger among themselves.
Vernon voters overwhelmingly approved the change in August.
The move required unanimous ratification from the other four towns. Brattleboro, Guilford, and Putney assented on Dec. 13, but Dummerston residents rejected Vernon’s exit with 100 “no” votes and 84 “yes” votes.
There had been general agreement among officials in Vernon, the supervisory union and the Act 46 study committee that Vernon’s exit was the right move at this point. But not everyone held that viewpoint, with some questioning whether there could be financial implications for the other towns.
Act 46 politics also played a role. In the wake of the Dec. 13 vote, Hebert declared that Vernon had been used as “kind of a pawn” by those who oppose a regional school merger.
Now, Vernon will get a do-over in Dummerston, where Town Clerk Laurie Frechette confirmed that she received a petition for a revote. The petition bore the signatures of 107 supporters, and that was 21 more than had been needed, Frechette said.
Dummerston School Board held a special meeting to warn the revote for Tuesday, Feb. 21. Polls at the town office will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Frechette said.
But if supporters of Vernon’s exit want to overturn last month’s vote, they’ll need to do more than win a simple majority.
Chris Winters, Vermont deputy secretary of state, pointed to a numerical threshold unique to revotes: Title 17, section 2661 of state statute says an attempt to rescind a previous vote “shall not be effective unless the number of votes cast in favor of reconsideration or rescission exceeds two-thirds of the number of votes cast for the prevailing side at the original meeting.”
In other words, two things must happen in order to overturn last month’s result in Dummerston: There need to be more “yes” votes than “no” votes cast, and there also needs to be a minimum of 67 votes (two-thirds of December’s prevailing total) cast in favor of Vernon’s exit.
Prior to December’s vote, officials worked to educate residents via meetings and mailers describing the proposal. There likely will be a similar effort between now and Feb. 21.
Hebert said he wants to make sure voters understand Vernon’s reasons for leaving the union. He also will argue that his district’s exit will have no practical effect on the other districts.
“I think people need more information,” Hebert said.
At this point, there is one public information meeting scheduled before the revote. It will be held Feb. 13, at 6:30 p.m., at Dummerston School, Frechette said.