House approves partial extensions for Act 46 mergers

No reprieve for Windham County schools, but some lawmakers still await results of court case

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved partial extensions to the Act 46 merger deadline of July 1.

Should the bill, passed by the House on Feb. 7, become law, the one-year extension would provide breathing room for some schools forced by the state Board of Education to undergo mergers.

But with extensions approved on a district-by-district basis depending on their progress in the merger process, only one town - Windham - in the county could receive an extra year depending on decisions made by the existing school board and the outcome of a proposed vote.

The extensions in the legislation would not benefit the majority of school districts in Windham County - in Brattleboro, Guilford, Putney, Dummerston, Athens, Westminster, and Grafton - that face forced mergers under last year's decision by the State Board of Education.

On Feb. 6, the House defeated a version of the bill that would have extended the deadline to July 2020 for all schools required to merge. The next day, the House passed an amended version containing the partial extensions, 134-10.

Of the 12 Windham County Representatives, five voted in favor of the partial extensions. Six voted against. One member was absent.

On Feb. 8, the bill was read on the floor of the Senate for the first time and referred to that body's Committee on Education.

'A disappointment'

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, was part of a tripartisan effort earlier in the legislative session to pause the forced mergers until the courts had ruled on ongoing litigation.

“It's a disappointment,” he said of last week's vote.

The disappointment is especially acute for towns - like Westminster - that developed a merger plan and had that plan approved by the State Agency of Education, only to have the plan overturned by the State Board of Education, Mrowicki continued.

The ideal solution, Mrowicki said, lies with the State Board of Education. He said the board should honor the original Act 46 language, which, in his view, allowed towns to develop alternative governance structures.

Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon did just that, he continued. The alternative structure proposed by these towns preserved a supervisory union that has operated well for 60 years.

But Vernon residents voted to leave the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union in two separate votes in 2016 and 2017 to preserve its 50-year history of school choice for its middle and high school students.

“Right now, Vernon is an orphan,” Mrowicki said. The alternative structure presented to the State Board of Education would have made the “supervisory union whole.”

Mrowicki said he hopes the education conversation eventually moves beyond governance and refocuses on education.

Instead, he said, Vermont needs to focus on students who are falling behind or falling into a “performance gap.” Many of the students who are struggling also face issues like trauma and generational poverty, he said.

“I'm not sure many of us believed that governance is the problem,” he said.

Mrowicki said the next step is waiting for the court to weigh in on litigation against the state and Act 46's forced mergers.

The Alliance of School Board Members filed a lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court on Dec. 20 on behalf of more than 30 school boards throughout the state, including Athens School District, Bellows Falls Union High School, Dummerston School District, Grafton School District, Marlboro School District, Westminster School District, and Windham School District.

The next hearing in the case will take place in the Franklin Civil Division on Friday, Feb. 15 at 1:30 p.m., where Judge Robert A. Mello is expected to rule on a preliminary injunction to preserve the current district structures and prevent the state from dissolving school districts or otherwise taking action in implementing Act 46 while the lawsuit makes its way through the courts.

Why they voted no

Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, who also voted against the partial extension, outlined why she - and five other representatives from the county - voted against the amended H.39 on Feb. 7 in an email to The Commons.

“Some schools and districts would get delays and others wouldn't,” wrote Coffey, who noted that Guilford, Brattleboro, Putney, and Dummerston “would not have gotten a delay and Vernon was completely omitted.”

Coffey said that she “had been advocating for a delay because the voters in all four towns voted against the merger proposals, and now with the lawsuits in the courts and the possibility that Vernon might be forced to merge with Windham Central next year, I believe that we would benefit from more time to sort things out.”

Brattleboro Town School Board member David Schoales, a critic of Act 46, wrote in an email to The Commons that the bill doesn't address all issues.

“The House bill helps a few of the most challenged districts, but ignores the damage others will experience by going ahead before a lot of important issues are resolved,” he wrote.

“In our case, Vernon's relationship has not yet been decided by the state, yet we are preparing budgets, including expected revenue from Vernon, which may not materialize.”

Representatives Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, and Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, voted in favor of the partial deadlines. Both said they doubt the State Senate will take action and would instead wait for a decision from the court.

Toleno, who voted against Act 46 in 2015, said he supported the House Committee on Education's work on H.39. He felt the committee had “taken detailed testimony” and said that “their approach was tailored to the reality of each local situation.”

He believes the political dynamic favors seeing the merger process through to completion.

He added that the vote to extend some deadlines does not do “much to alter my perception that the only viable challenge to specific situations is the lawsuit.”

Sibilia doubts last week's vote was necessary.

She believes members of the Education Committee wanted to wait until after the court considers the litigation.

“Act 46 continues to be - because of the scale of change it embodies - a very definite and emotional issue all across the state,” Sibilia said.

Because the schools in Sibilia's district have completed the merger process, she said that some have implied that it's easy for her and legislators representing such districts not to be concerned.

For Sibilia, the bill is a reminder of the “disconnect” many in Vermont experience when thinking about education funding.

The state-funded education system and state property tax mean that what happens locally happens statewide, she said, and education decisions made at the local level require that everyone in the state pays.

“Rural Vermont has a lot to do to ensure [education] equity and access in the future,” she said. “We're not at the end yet. We might be close to the middle.”

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