DUMMERSTON—Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s already arduous Act 46 deliberations may be getting even more difficult.
Dummerston voters on Feb. 21 again rejected Vernon’s proposed withdrawal from a regional educational union, thus closing a door that had been opened in an attempt to find a solution to Windham Southeast’s school merger stalemate.
Voters cast 169 ballots against Vernon’s withdrawal from Brattleboro Union High School District No. 6, compared with 150 in favor.
Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert, who’s also a state legislator, said he’s introduced a bill that could allow his district to decide its own fate without relying on Dummerston’s approval.
But no matter what happens legislatively, Hebert said Vernon representatives won’t rejoin the supervisory union’s five-town merger deliberations due to school choice concerns.
“Vernon will never voluntarily give up school choice,” Hebert said. “If that means we have to go to court ... whatever is necessary.”
Alice Laughlin, chair of Windham Southeast’s Act 46 Study Committee, said committee members will have “a few choices to discuss” at their next meeting in light of the Dummerston vote.
“We have already touched on possibly moving forward with a five-town merger vote,” Laughlin said. “We could also go to the [state] Board of Education and ask them to take it from here. We have worked long and hard on the articles of agreement, and it is time for the Board of Education to look at them.”
School choice stalemate
The Feb. 21 vote was the latest step in a long, complicated debate over Act 46 and the future of school choice in Vernon.
The town initially was part of Windham Southeast’s consolidation talks under Act 46, the 2015 state law that pushes for larger, merged school districts statewide. But after months of negotiations, Vernon abruptly dropped out of those talks due to concern about losing the town’s unique school choice setup.
Merged districts must offer the same structure of operating schools and choice to member towns. Among Windham Southeast schools, however, only Vernon has school choice starting in seventh grade — and there has been strong sentiment to preserve that option.
Vernon’s exit from Windham Southeast’s Act 46 merger discussions threw that process into disarray until officials came up with a possible solution: Vernon could legally withdraw from the regional union known as BUHS District No. 6.
The proposed parting of ways would allow Vernon to pursue its own Act 46 answers, while freeing representatives from Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney to finalize plans for a vote on a four-town school district merger.
But the plan for Vernon’s departure required the endorsement of all five towns.
While Vernon voters overwhelmingly approved withdrawing from the union in August, Dummerston was the sole town that failed to ratify the withdrawal in a December vote.
The tally at that time was 100 votes against Vernon’s withdrawal and 84 in favor.
Dummerston’s rejection may have been based partly on doubts about financial assurances offered by Windham Southeast officials, who have said Vernon’s exit would not negatively impact the remaining districts.
There also was speculation that opponents of the overall Windham Southeast Act 46 merger plan saw voting against Vernon’s withdrawal as a way to derail that process. Hebert in December said he thought Vernon had been used as “kind of a pawn” in the supervisory union’s merger debate.
Tuesday’s revote was spurred by a successful petition drive in Dummerston.
Earlier this month, Hebert penned a letter addressed to Dummerston voters. He outlined Vernon’s long history of school choice and said the town’s withdrawal from BUHS District No. 6 would not be detrimental to Dummerston residents.
“A negative vote from the voters of Dummerston is, in effect, a vote to eliminate our school choice option,” Hebert wrote.
He closed that letter with a plea: “Once again, I ask you to honor our request and treat us the way we would treat our friends and neighbors and vote to allow Vernon to withdraw.”
Speaking after Dummerston’s ballots had been tallied, Hebert said he wasn’t shocked that the revote didn’t go Vernon’s way. He said he was not frustrated, but “more disappointed that, after all the years of good relationships that we’ve had ... one town needs to hold another town up.”
In anticipation of the vote result, and in order to meet legislative deadlines, Hebert last week introduced a new bill, H.239.
While the bill doesn’t name Vernon, it specifically describes the town’s educational structure and says such a district should be able “to withdraw from the union high school district without approval by the remaining members” of that district.
Hebert said the bill, which is in the House Education Committee, is “very narrowly” crafted to allow Windham Southeast’s districts to find Act 46 solutions. Given Vernon’s strong attachment to school choice, “I don’t want to hold up the other towns,” Hebert said.
Kristina Naylor, who serves on both the Dummerston School Board and the supervisory union’s Act 46 Study Committee, said she had stayed neutral on Vernon’s possible withdrawal.
But she offered two possible factors behind the Feb. 21 result.
First, “I did hear from a lot of voters who were unhappy about the concept of the revote — they feel that a vote was a vote,” Naylor said.
Also, Naylor said widespread dissatisfaction with Act 46 and related merger discussions may have doomed Vernon’s efforts to leave the district.
“I don’t think anybody wants to keep Vernon in [the district] long-term if they feel they must go,” Naylor said. “But people are very upset about the Act 46 process and how it’s worked.”