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Act 46 do-over ordered in Dover

Re-vote is announced due to differing ballot language, while merger already is in motion

DOVER—In Windham County, it seems nothing comes easy with Act 46.

The latest issue comes in Dover, where officials have discovered that a March vote warning mistakenly included school-closure language that wasn’t on other communities’ ballots.

Dover voters convincingly approved the Act 46 school merger plan three months ago. Now, they’ll have to weigh the issue again in a special July 11 election, and officials are hoping the result is the same so as to not disrupt a merger that’s already been set in motion.

In fact, Dover School Board is endorsing the merger plan in advance of next month’s vote — something the board didn’t do prior to Town Meeting Day balloting.

“Given the overwhelming approval Dover and Wardsboro’s voters have shown the merger, our board felt it was important to clearly support the sentiment of those votes,” Rich Werner, Dover School Board chairman, said in announcing the second vote.

Act 46, the 2015 school-governance law, pushes for school mergers statewide in an attempt to cut costs and equalize educational opportunities. But implementing the law has proven difficult in many communities, and it’s been an especially rocky road in Windham County:

• Windham Southeast Supervisory Union has struggled to reconcile a merger plan with Vernon’s unique school-choice setup. The impasse has spurred legislative action that might provide a solution for Vernon and the union’s four other towns.

• In Windham Southwest, all but one community approved an Act 46 plan earlier this month. But that vote came only after state officials last year rejected the union’s initial proposal.

• In Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, a four-town merger vote failed on Town Meeting Day.

• That same day, Windham Central voters delivered a mixed verdict on a “side-by-side” merger proposal.

Four of five towns in the Leland & Gray union agreed to join forces. But on the other side of the merger plan, only Dover initially voted in the affirmative, with Marlboro and Wardsboro rejecting it.

Wardsboro reversed its decision in a subsequent revote, allowing that town and Dover to move ahead with a merger.

At least that’s what Windham Central officials had thought until May 30, when state Agency of Education officials notified Superintendent Bill Anton that Dover had approved language that wasn’t on Wardsboro’s and Marlboro’s warnings.

In Dover, voters saw this sentence: “No elementary school shall be closed without a unanimous vote of the River Valleys Unified School District Board, and an affirmative vote of the town in which it is located.”

But the proposed school district’s articles of agreement — as they had been approved by the state Board of Education in December — called only for an affirmative town vote before a school closure. There’s no mention of also requiring a unanimous school board vote.

That means Dover voters approved a version of the merger plan that could make it more difficult for schools to shut their doors.

The Windham Central Act 46 plan does not call for eliminating any schools at this point. Nevertheless, that concern surfaced often throughout the union’s merger talks.

“One of the things that was very important to everybody was that schools not close,” Werner said.

That’s why Werner had favored the two-step school-closure process that includes unanimous school board approval. Somewhere in the merger plan’s amendment and approval process, however, that language disappeared at the recommendation of state officials — though it remained in Dover’s articles.

“I’ll take full credit for it,” Werner said. “I was led to believe we could do that.”

Consultations with the Agency of Education led to Dover scheduling a new vote on the merger plan — minus the problematic March language — on July 11 via Australian ballot. Dover School Board members are inviting questions and comments on the matter at their meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. June 19.

Though there have been numerous Act 46 votes statewide, an Agency of Education spokeswoman said she didn’t know of any other towns that had been forced to revote due to flawed warning language.

Windham Central officials, however, noted the complexity and duration of Act 46 talks prior to the March vote.

“The amount of work was immense, and one can imagine how something like this could occur,” Anton said.

Werner said he’d been carrying around files with “probably 30 different versions” of the merger articles. And he pointed out that Windham Central’s school boards began merger talks soon after the law was approved, deciding not to pursue an accelerated process so that officials had more time to work through the details.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover and vice chairwoman of the town school board, praised Werner’s work and said she wishes in hindsight that paid Act 46 consultants had been required to coordinate voting language among towns.

“People like Rich have probably been to an extra 60 to 70 uncompensated meetings since the inception of Act 46,” Sibilia said. “[Windham Central] has been lucky. Rich is a strong, experienced leader working with a strong, entrepreneurial superintendent.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #412 (Wednesday, June 14, 2017).

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