BENNINGTON — The Community College of Vermont on Monday hosted the latest in a series of informal community meetings on Act 46.
Bruce Lierman, who is on North Bennington's ad hoc Act 46 study committee, is one of the organizers of the meetings, which take place every Monday, once in the afternoon and once in the evening, so that the most people possible will be able to attend. The meetings are intended to educate and stir up conversations between community members on the controversial education law of 2015, which looks more and more like it will have a profound affect on the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.
In attendance for the meeting were Lierman, North Bennington Prudential Committee chairman Matthew Patterson, state representative Mary Morrissey (R-Bennington), Bennington Select Board member Jeannie Jenkins, Shaftsbury School Board member Ed Molloy, and former Shaftsbury School Board member Larry Johnson, among others.
"Part of the requirements of Act 46, as they have been stated and interpreted by the Agency of Education, is that you need to merge like districts with like districts," said Lierman, "Like districts, as far as they're concerned, are districts that have the same enrollment options. That is, do they tuition students or do they have a public school that provides education for the students. Our supervisory union contains one tuitioning district at the K-6 level, that's North Bennington. All the others operate public schools, and therefore could be merger like with like. But North Bennington cannot merge with the supervisory union as it stands now, as a tuitioning district."
Because of this fundamental conflict, the SVSU's formal Act 46 study committee disbanded earlier this month, at the suggestion of Bennington representative Donald Campbell. However, SVSU legal counsel Steve Stitzel has advised that the committee cannot reform without North Bennington so long as North Bennington remains a member of the Mount Anthony Union District. Patterson and Lierman are skeptical of this interpretation of the law and are seeking an outside legal opinion. In order for North Bennington to leave MAU, it would either require a positive vote of each of the communities that make up MAU, action by the state legislature, or the dissolution of MAU.
In terms of what a merged SVSU would look like without North Bennington could look like, several options were discussed at the meeting. One idea was a modified unified union district, with one board with representatives from all the member communities, as well as a single tax rate. This model has hit a major sticking point however, namely that Bennington's representatives have indicated that they would only consider joining is representation on that board is proportional — meaning Bennington would get about two-thirds of the total votes. Smaller communities have expressed concern that Bennington would be then making decisions about their schools unilaterally, and have pushed for a model similar to how MAU operates today, with representatives being voted in by everyone, regardless of what community they represent. The agency of education has advised that proportional representation would not be required under this model.
Another option discussed involved Bennington and Mount Anthony Union merging to form a supervisory district. This would dissolve MAU and allow Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford to form their own supervisory district with school choice for grades 7-12. It would also allow North Bennington to leave MAU without holding a vote, but, if Stitzel's interpretation is correct, a study committee will not be able to form to draft articles of agreement on this model until North Bennington formally exits.
Finally, some residents of Shaftsbury support going the route of North Bennington and becoming a non-operating district. This would mean voting to close their school, re-opening it as an independent academy, and becoming a K-12 choice district. However, those discussions took years in North Bennington, and it is unlikely that they could be completed in the condensed timeline of Act 46, which requires districts to have merger plans approved by voters and submitted to the state by November of next year. On the other hand, merging with other districts, such as Pownal, would eliminate the Shaftsbury School District and would make it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue that option in the future.
The next of the informal discussion sessions hosted by this group will take place on Sept. 26, at noon at Powers Market in North Bennington and at 7 p.m. at the North Bennington Train Station, and on Oct. 3 at noon and 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Bennington. Additionally, Shaftsbury will host an informational forum on Wednesday Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Shaftsbury Fire House, and the Town of Bennington and the SVSU will host a joint forum on Tuesday Sept. 27 at the Bennington Fire Station. Act 46 will also be among the topics discussed at a special meeting of the Bennington School Board this Thursday at 5 p.m. at the SVSU offices on South Stream Road.
— Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.