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Parties await judge’s decision in Act 46 case

Injunction looms over towns’ and districts’ budget processes as Town Meeting time draws near

—Last week, Superior Court Judge Robert Mello heard arguments for and against granting a preliminary injunction to school-district mergers triggered by Act 46.At press time, Attorney David F. Kelley had yet to hear any news.Kelley is one of the attorneys representing 33 school districts and approximately a dozen individuals in a case against the Vermont State Board of Education, et al.“Nobody is more anxious than I am,” said Kelley, who characterized the approximately two-hour hearing in St. Albans on Feb. 15 as having gone well.In the meantime, uncertainty hangs over the Act 46 merger process, especially for school districts that have opposed the provisions of the state education-reform law, which was designed to simplify municipal governance in a state whose student population has markedly declined.According to an original deadline specified in Act 46, school districts are expected to complete their respective merger preparations by July 1, 2019. a process that includes the districts’ budgets.If the mergers are put on hold, that budget work could become moot.On Feb. 7, the Vermont House of Representatives passed a bill that altered the July 2019 deadline for some of the school districts ordered to merge by the State Board of Education. That bill is now with the Vermont Senate, where it has been referred to that body’s Committee on Education.Kelley explained that Mello could hand down a variety of decisions, but the outcome will all depend on the language the judge uses in his final order, the attorney said.That final order might implement a full preliminary injunction for all school districts in Vermont, or it might deny the preliminary injunction completely. Another possibility: the final ruling might grant some districts an injunction but not others, Kelley said.“There are so many major issues here,” he said.For Kelley, one of his concerns center on the separation of powers between the Legislature and state agencies. He also questions how the State Board of Education interpreted Act 46.In his opinion, “the board merged districts where it was possible,” regardless of whether the districts were already meeting the goals of the law.The board never established measurements or benchmarks for what educational outcomes — or lack of outcomes — should trigger a merger, he continued. In Kelley’s opinion, the board merged all the districts it could.Requiring other districts to take on another district’s debt and geographic challenges also should have been considered, he added.Kelley’s greatest concern, however, is the future of Vermont’s rural communities.“Rural Vermont is at a crossroads,” he said. While it has lost much of its industry, large farms, and population, the small towns of the state also have assets, he said.Vermont’s quality of life — benefits like outdoor recreation, value-added agriculture, and the promise of remote working via the internet — could appeal to a new generation of families, Kelley said.But to attract those families, these communities need their local schools, Kelley argued.“Act 46 may have been a benefit to some districts and damaging to others,” he said. “To understand and appreciate its impact, voters need to be seriously and actively engaged.”

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