4 votes in Pownal, 2 in Woodford sink Act 46 proposal

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BENNINGTON — The merger proposal that would have created the Mount Anthony Unified School District out of the Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, Woodford, and Mount Anthony Union school districts has failed.

After passing with almost two-thirds of the vote in Shaftsbury and three-quarters of the vote in Bennington, the proposal was defeated by four votes in Pownal and two votes in Woodford. The ballot article would have needed positive votes in three out of the four communities to pass.

In total the four communities supported the endeavor by a vote of 1,533 to 766. Bennington voted 965-338, Shaftsbury 322-176, Pownal 210-214, and Woodford 36-38.

The results will need to be ratified by the Agency of Education before they are considered official.

Donald Campbell, chairman of the Act 46 study committee that drafted the proposal, called the results "frustrating."

Opponents to the merger held many concerns, including a perceived lack of local control under a unified regional board, questions related to how costs would be shared, and a desire to continue doing things as they've been done for years.

"I'm definitely not going to vote for it," said Fran Kinney, who represents Shaftsbury on its school board as well as on the Mount Anthony Union Board. "I would rather have the state come down and do their thing. We keep hearing the threats that the state is going to come down, I want them to. The state's never followed through on anything to begin with. I think if they come down and see what we have, we're doing 85 percent of the consolidation pieces as it is right now anyway, so I can't imagine that they're going to change too much. I want the state to be accountable and I want them to be responsible... Let's see what they're going to do, because I don't think they're going to do a heck of a lot."

Also on the ballot were races for seats on the unified board, which will no longer form, rendering those results moot.

Prior to the vote, Campbell discussed the next steps should the vote fail. "Our committee determined that the best outcome for the region would be a Modified Unified Union School District, an alternative structure that is eligible for the tax incentives," he said. "Like all mergers except for the 'conventional merger,' for which we cannot qualify, ours must be approved by Nov. 30. No other options are open to our communities now. If this merger vote fails, each school will be compelled to complete a Section 9 report justifying their current structure, and then the Agency of Education will decide how to merge us. There is no more time to present a different proposal."

The Section 9 reports will be submitted to the State Board of Education in December. Next June, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe will release her statewide education governance plan, which will be amended and ratified by the State Board of Education.

"We're in a situation now where locally, we can all decide what to do with our education system," State Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) said before the vote. "If we cannot come to an agreement then indeed the state, the Agency of Education, will step in and decide that for us. On a personal level, I wouldn't want to see that happen, so I hope that we could come to some sort of resolution on what would be best for all our students."

None of the communities will be eligible for the tax incentives reserved for districts that agreed to voluntarily merged by Nov. 30, regardless of whether they end up being merged by the state.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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