Committee attempts to answer Act 46 questions

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BENNINGTON — In less than a month, voters of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford will gather to decide the future of their school system.

Before that happens on Nov. 7, those in favor, those opposed, and those who just want to present the facts of the proposed merger plan are all working to make their case to the public.

Under statute, the board of the newly merged district will be chosen at the same time that voters decide whether to form the district. Petitions and signatures for those ballot spots are due to be turned into town clerks on Tuesday.

If the merger is approved, Bennington will have four members on the new board, Pownal and Shaftsbury will have two each, and Woodford will have one.

"Act 46 is now the law of the land, so we've been working in various study committees for two and a half years trying to figure out how to get through this," said Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee chairman Donald Campbell.

Campbell disagrees with concerns that the committee had "rushed through" coming up with the plan.

"I suppose we could have taken five years to get through it, but there's a deadline," he said. "We're trying to work to get this done by Nov. 30, at which point we would no longer be able to take (advantage) of any of the financial incentives and at which point we would no longer have the best options open to us."

The law requires the State Board of Education to create a statewide governance plan by 2019, which can merge districts that do not merge on their own. Districts which have yet to merge must submit reports discussing how they are currently meeting those goals prior to the board's December meeting.

If the SVSU member districts do not vote to voluntarily merge under this plan, created by the study committee with the held of consultant Dan French, its fate, for better or for worse, will be in the hands of the state.

Campbell said that he feels that the state has been very clear about its intention to merge districts into more efficient government structures, and that the argument that the state won't actually do anything is "ill-informed."

"I'm not trying to use scare-tactics when I say the state has created legislation and have enumerated in several pieces of legislation that they intend to follow through with it," he said. "I think the bottom line is that the merger proposal has a lot of different things in it. It protects the small schools a little bit more than they would be protected if the state did it. There are financial incentives that are very substantial, but that isn't the best reason to do it, the best reason is to do it is because we think it's the best for our school system."

In addition to the official merger study report and articles of agreement for the Mount Anthony Unified School District, which is available on the SVSU website, the study committee has also prepared a list of answers the "frequently asked questions" about the merger and the process that brought them to this point. That document is also available on the SVSU website, and discusses questions about what the new, combined tax rate would look like, what happens if a district votes no, and what effects the merger would have on educational programming and opportunities. The committee is also working on an info sheet that will serve as a summary of the proposal.

If voters still have questions or concerns, there will be opportunities to have them answered over the coming month. Shaftsbury will be the first community to host a meeting on Act 46 tonight at 6 p.m. at Shaftsbury Elementary School, and the study committee is working on scheduling forums of its own. Woodford and Pownal have scheduled public meetings the day before the vote.

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB

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