BRATTLEBORO—After nearly 16 months of work, it appears voters won’t get a chance to weigh in on a five-town school merger proposal in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
Following two failed attempts to cut Vernon loose from the union’s consolidation talks, the members of Windham Southeast’s Act 46 Study Committee convened March 2 and decided to ask state education officials for guidance on what to do next.
The committee could have tried to forge ahead by asking voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon to consider a long-discussed plan to merge the union’s schools. But committee members decided not to do so, given the clear opposition in some of those towns.
“My big concern ... in holding a vote is that we would come off as ramming something down our communities’ throats that’s not necessarily palatable,” said Amy Wall, a Dummerston representative on the study committee.
Act 46, the state’s 2015 education law, pushes schools to merge into larger districts operating under unified governance.
Technically, the law doesn’t force all districts to merge. But those that don’t come up with their own plans to satisfy the provisions of Act 46 will be at the mercy of the state Board of Education, which is required to come up with a final, statewide school governance plan in late 2018.
An existential crisis
Act 46 has spurred an existential crisis for Windham Southeast, in part due to vehement opposition from some who question the efficacy of school mergers.
Also, Vernon officials pulled out of Act 46 talks last year when it became clear that the town’s unique school choice setup would disappear under a merger with other Windham Southeast districts.
Officials attempted to get around that problem by allowing Vernon to legally separate itself from the regional school union — a move that was overwhelmingly endorsed by Vernon voters last August. With Vernon out of the union, the other four towns could pursue a school merger among themselves.
But each of those four towns had to ratify Vernon’s withdrawal. And Dummerston voters have rejected it twice, most recently on Feb. 21.
That led to the March 2 meeting in Brattleboro, where Vernon School Board member Deb Hebert warned the Act 46 Study Committee that her board would “file an injunction” to legally halt any attempt to conduct a five-town merger vote.
Hebert noted that her husband and fellow school board member, Republican state Rep. Mike Hebert, has authored H.239 — legislation that would allow Vernon to vote itself out of the union.
Given the anti-merger sentiment in Vernon and Dummerston, Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley told the study committee that it would be “unwise” to push for a consolidation vote at this point.
Instead, Stahley urged the committee to send a draft of its Act 46 proposal to the state Board of Education to start a dialog about what to do next. In the meantime, he said, Windham Southeast officials should take another look at alternative merger structures.
“The [Agency of Education] has seen this merger plan. I don’t think it hurts us for the state board to look at it and give us some advice,” Stahley said. “I think, if we work with them, we’re going to come up with some good suggestions.”
Work still to be done
Officials acknowledged that they essentially were giving up on allowing residents to consider the current merger plan before July 1, which is the next Act 46 voting deadline.
There was some initial resistance to Stahley’s plan. Not holding a vote means that, “if Guilford really wanted to merge, Guilford no longer gets to control their own destiny,” said committee member Jill Stahl Tyler, who chairs the Brattleboro Town School District board.
“We were going to do our best to come up with a merger that made the most sense for our communities, and let the voters decide,” she added. “We’re not doing that.”
But others said it’s clear that a change of direction is needed. The committee eventually voted unanimously to send its merger plan to the state Board of Education “for advice and guidance with respect to our impasse and how we can meet the requirements of Act 46.”
Officials stressed that the study committee’s work isn’t yet finished.
“Yes, we have spent a lot of time,” Wall said. “But this is our children. I will spend many more hours doing this if I have to, to make sure that we can offer all of our kids in all of our communities a great public education.”