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Pending court ruling complicates school votes

Windham Southeast Supervisory schools prepare for budget discussion, school board elections

BRATTLEBORO—As opponents and supporters of Act 46 await a court ruling, school boards and voters can expect to face contingencies on the Town Meeting floor.

On Feb. 15, Superior Court Judge Robert Mello heard arguments for and against granting a preliminary injunction to school district mergers triggered by Act 46.

On Feb. 18, attorney David F. Kelley told The Commons that the judge’s ruling will determine school districts’ next moves, as an injunction could cover all districts in the state, or only some, he said.

Kelley is one of the lawyers representing 33 school districts and approximately a dozen individuals in a case against the Vermont State Board of Education over forced mergers.

According to an original deadline in Act 46, school districts should complete merger preparations by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

What does this mean for voters who traditionally vote on their local school budget and elect School Board Members on the first Tuesday in March?

Windham Southeast Supervisory Superintendent Lyle Holiday said most of the schools have added language in their Town Meeting warnings that addresses both a forced merger and an injunction.

If the school districts are forced to merge after all, then a transitional school board will build a budget that funds all the WSESU schools. This transitional board will be elected Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m., in the BUHS gym.

Should Mello issue an injunction, however, then the current school districts will build their individual school budgets as they did prior to Act 46.

“It’s unfortunate we don’t know yet,” said Holiday about the uncertainty leading up to Town Meeting.

Holiday said she hopes community members will still attend Town Meeting, where citizens can still ask questions of the sitting officials, regardless of the language on the warning.

Brattleboro

The Brattleboro Town School district will meet with Town Meeting Members on Saturday, March 23 for Representative Annual Town Meeting.

In case Mello hasn’t issued a ruling before the meeting, the warning includes language that covers an injunction and a forced merger. This approach is similar to the one Putney will take, Holiday said.

If the injunction is issued after March 23, then the Town School District will hold a special meeting, she said.

BUHS #6 school district is already considered a merged district since the State Board of Education issued its final merger plans on Nov. 30, 2018, Holiday said.

Holiday said that at last week’s annual meeting, the BUHS #6 board did not present a budget to voters. The merged budget will wait until a transitional board forms on Feb. 27.

If Judge Mello issues an injunction, then BUHS #6 board will hold a special budget meeting.

BUHS #6 includes Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, and the Windham Regional Career Center. It also includes the towns of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney. Vernon students can choose to tuition to the schools within BUHS #6.

Other district towns approach the ambiguity

Dummerston is one of many Windham County towns that joined the December lawsuit.

According to Holiday, the town’s school district has received legal advice that it should present a local school budget for the elementary school at Town Meeting.

In other words, voters will proceed as if the judge has issued an injunction.

Guilford: According to Holiday, Guilford has decided to not present a school budget for a vote at Town Meeting. Instead, the school district has decided to wait and hold a special budget meeting if an injunction is handed down.

Putney: Holiday said that Putney has included, in its school warning, language to cover both scenarios (forced merger or injunction).

If Mello issues an injunction before Town Meeting, then the School Board will present a budget; otherwise, voters will not consider a budget.

If an injunction is issued after Town Meeting, then the district will hold a special budget meeting.

Vernon: According to Holiday, voters at Vernon’s town meeting will vote on their school budget as they always have.

Vernon’s school district is independent. The district left WSESU after a series of public votes and legislation changes approximately two years ago.

Electing school boards

Holiday said voters will elect their respective local school boards as usual at Town Meeting. These board members will serve until July 1, regardless of whether the forced mergers move ahead or whether Mello issues an injunction, she said.

These local boards will convene over business pertaining to the remainder of fiscal year 2019, Holiday said.

On July 1, the new merged board — sometimes called a “mega-board” — will take over, Holiday said — unless, of course, there is an injunction. In that case, the local boards will continue to operate.

According to Holiday, Act 46 requires a newly merged district to create a transition board. One of this board’s jobs includes building a budget that encompasses all the schools in the merged district, she said.

The transition board will be formed at the Wednesday, Feb. 27 public organizational meeting.

Petitions for candidates interested in running for a seat on the merged mega-board will be available starting Thursday, Feb. 28.

Their terms would begin July 1 — unless there is an injunction.

Budget ramifications

“So there’s still a lot up in the air,” Holiday said.

She hopes Mello will release his ruling sooner rather than later.

Putting budgets on hold has multiple ramifications, she said — for example, staffing.

Holiday has received advice that the WSESU should go ahead and hire replacements for retired staff.

New hires will need to wait.

Two positions on hold include a dean of students for BUHS #6 and a part-time academic support staff member at Academy School in Brattleboro, Holiday said.

The dean would work with students and their families, she said, “to provide more complete wrap-around services.”

Funding for the Academy School position comes from Title I — a federal program to mitigate the effects of poverty on schoolchildren — and local taxes, Holiday said.

Holiday said that she sees more struggling students in district schools, with more families struggling and more students are “couch surfing.”

“We have kids that need support,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #499 (Wednesday, February 27, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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