Board asks state to honor merger wishes

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BENNINGTON — Tensions flared as the Bennington School Board abruptly changed course on Thursday, voting to throw out the draft Act 46 Section 9 report they had tasked a subcommittee with writing and instead submit the merger articles that Bennington voters endorsed in November.

The decision, which split the board, did not sit well with the board members who drafted the report, who felt they had been asked to work for weeks, making countless phone calls and emails, to compile the necessary data, only to have their work count for nothing.

Thursday's special meeting was scheduled to review and approve the work done by the subcommittee, which was made up of board members Jackie Prue, Meridy Capella, and George Sleeman, prior to the Tuesday, Dec. 26 deadline for submitting the Section 9 reports.

However, minutes into the review of the document, which included a five-page report with almost 80 pages of supporting documents, board member Dan Monks brought the discussion to a screeching halt.

"I am not prepared to support anything other than encouraging an MAU-style merger," he informed the rest of the board, referring to a merger in which the resulting district board would be structured in a hybrid at-large model, the same governance structure that was proposed by the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee and voted on by the member districts in November. That vote passed with an overwhelming majority in Bennington and Shaftsbury, but was narrowly defeated in Woodford and Pownal. As a merger required a majority of districts to approve the proposal, the endeavor failed.

Capella, who supported the Act 46 merger proposal, argued that the draft Section 9 report was not intended to close the door on potential merger, but to simply acknowledge that the vote failed. The report, which all unmerged districts are required to submit to the State Board of Education, proposed that the BSD remain as a distinct district under the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, but said also that, "the Bennington School District would not be averse to discussing other ways of merging with the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union members districts, such as a side-by-side, in the future."

Woodford is holding a re-vote on Jan. 9, which, if it were to pass, would give the proposed Mount Anthony Unified School District the three districts it needs to take form. The new district would begin operation on July 1, 2019. If the Woodford vote should pass, the Section 9 reports submitted by the newly-merged districts, including Bennington, would be moot.

Board member Chaila Sekora agreed with Monks. "As a town we voted to merge, so I think that's what we should do," she said.

Prue said that while she felt exactly the opposite to Monks, she had tried to put her personal feelings aside while writing the report and endeavored to simply state the facts. Even so, the board voted 3-2 to reject the report, with Chairman Chris Murphy casting the deciding vote. Sleeman and the seventh board member, Jackie Kelly, were not present.

After the report was rejected, Monks made a motion that in lieu of a Section 9 report, the board should send the articles of agreement, which were approved by Bennington's voters 965-338, to the state board, along with the message that that board should, "do everything in their power to effectuate that merger."

That motion passed 4-1, with only Prue voting against.

Capella, while she voted in favor, voiced her strong displeasure at having been made to work for several weeks on a report that the majority of the board knew it would never accept. Murphy said that he could not have known that he would vote to reject the report without having read it first.

All five members present agreed that if the tax incentives that were promised to districts that merged before Nov. 30 are not on the table, Bennington should have the opportunity to re-vote on the merger. "As a voter, I voted for a specific package, and if that package gets changed, I want a chance to re-consider my vote," said Murphy. Monks was skeptical that a lack of tax incentives would change enough minds to overturn the strong vote in favor of the merger.

In a strict reading of Act 49, the 2017 law that amended Act 46 of 2015, Bennington and the other SVSU districts would not be eligible for the tax incentives, as their merger was not approved by the deadline. However, legal counsel for the SVSU believes that the Agency of Education has the authority to extend the deadlines if they believe that the districts met the spirit of the requirements, and, failing that, there is also a push for a legislative solution.

The board empowered Murphy to write and submit a letter to the state board, to be submitted alongside the articles of agreement.

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

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