BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board voted on Wednesday to expand its Act 46 study committee from seven to 15 members, and include representation from the Mount Anthony Board and the community.
SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen recommended the changes after a meeting in Brattleboro on Monday, in which members of the study committee spoke with representatives from the Agency of Education, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association, and two Act 46 consultants. Barring any changes, the board – which currently has three representatives from the Bennington school board and one each from Shaftsbury, Pownal, North Bennington, and Woodford – will be expanded to include three additional community members from Bennington, one community member each from Shaftsbury, Pownal, North Bennington, and Woodford, and one member of the Mount Anthony Board. Culkeen left open the possibility that the Bennington board could opt to give one or two of its community seats to members of the MAU board from Bennington, so that both MAU and Bennington are being represented.
Culkeen also went over his impressions of the options available to the SU, after Monday's meeting. Regarding the possibility of North Bennington or Shaftsbury withdrawing from the SVSU and MAU and forming K-12 school choice districts, he said, "For Shaftsbury, if they want to consider leaving the SU and Mount Anthony, they would have to consult legal counsel and arrange for a townwide vote as soon as possible that they wish to withdraw from MAU. They have to go first, that's how the process works. If the town approves it, then the vote has to go to all the individual towns, to allow them to leave. If one town says no, it's done. That would have to be completed by July of 2017. It would be a similar process for North Bennington.
Another option, he said, is to create a Modified Unified Union School District, similar to MAU, except K-12 and encompassing all of the districts in the SVSU. That would require a majority vote from each town wanting to join the new district. If any towns voted no, they would still remain part of the supervisory union, but would not become a part of the new district. However, said Culkeen, "By 2018, the state is saying they're not going to allow outlier districts. The town that chose not to join would run the risk of the secretary of education coming down and making the recommendation to the state board that the town is now going to have to join."
He said a conventional merger would essentially dissolve all individual boards and turn the SVSU into a single school district, but all towns would need to vote yes for that to happen, and it would need to be completed by November of next year.
Finally, regarding submitting a proposal for an alternative structure, in which the SVSU would argue that it is already consolidated enough, which several board members had suggested as a possibility since the beginning of the process, Culkeen said, "That part of the law is not designed for us. We are already a structured SU. They said we would not get approval for an alternative structure. That's an important thing for us to start to realize and consider, because we've heard at so many public forums that that is a possibility. We are now hearing that it isn't."
Culkeen also had words of caution for board and community members who think that Act 46 will be dismantled after elections in the fall. "They clearly felt that the law is not going to go away. It might have some tweaks to it, but it's not going to go away, and we have to start accepting that fact."
The Mount Anthony Union School Board meets the third Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the Mount Anthony Union Middle School library. Full recordings of the meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.