Education board's move on Act 46 'exceptions' finds resistance
The State Board of Education began the formal rulemaking process Tuesday for alternative school governance structures under Act 46, while members of the public and a board member expressed concerns about the move.
The rules would be for school districts proposing to comply with Act 46 through something other than the merger structures outlined in the law. The Education Agency's draft rules will now go to the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules, and then there will be an opportunity for the public to weigh in. But Tuesday the public didn't want to wait.
Nancy Cornell was one of two members of the public who decided to speak at the board's meeting. Others concerned about the alternative structure guidance the board issued last month were also in attendance.
Cornell was part of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee but said she was at the board meeting as a concerned citizen.
"Myth has led our committee to feel it needs to move quickly, even without information about what the rules will be about alternative structures," Cornell told board members, adding she has concerns "about confusing pieces in the rules" and hoped the board would make some changes.
The Addison Northeast committee plans to put its proposal for unification to the state board next month, but Cornell is one of three members who wrote a dissent to the final plan.
Act 46, passed in June 2015, encourages school districts to form study committees to consider voluntarily merging into larger governance units. It is the continuation of two other voluntary merger laws that date back to 2010, all of which offer tax incentives for unifying.
Proposals need approval from the State Board of Education and the towns involved.
Act 46 combined with the other two laws provide outlines for the types of merger structures that school districts can consider when unifying during the first three phases of the law's implementation. An alternative structure, according to the law, is supposed to be the "exception" — meant for the unusual school district that has unique circumstances and has first tried to fit into the other structures.
"One thing the legislation did make clear is that the alternative structure is an exception and only followed in certain situations where it is the best or only option in the area," said Donna Russo-Savage, who handles Act 46 plans for the Agency of Education. During her explanation of the draft rules to the board, Russo-Savage also said alternative structures should be "the final option" and "the best or only alternative."
Board member William Mathis suggested scrapping rulemaking on alternative structures and sticking to the guidance already issued. "If we don't have to do rules it saves time," he said.
But member Krista Huling thought it was more important to codify what would be expected of school districts seeking an alternative path.
Russo-Savage agreed that establishing rules is above and beyond what the state board is required to do, but she encouraged members to go through the process to provide information to the public.
"Rulemaking can't change the law — it can clarify the law," she said, adding that board members decided to use their authority "because you felt as though you owed it to the public to provide more information and more clarity. Even if these aren't adopted, they are giving an indication of the things" members are going to be looking for in proposals.
Mathis also complained about the length of the rules — 18 pages — saying he thought a quarter of them would be sufficient. He said he heard people thought the board was placing a high bar for school districts looking at this route.
"If they have done the preliminary work to examine preferred structures first, then they should have the data in hand to (apply for an alternative proposal). Is my interpretation a correct one?" he asked.
Russo-Savage agreed that the rules as written should be a "natural extension" of what districts do for the preferred structure analysis. "It will be those kinds of data and analysis that will lead to the conclusion and be supportive of their alternative structure proposal," she said.
Rama Schneider, chair of the Williamstown School Board, came to the meeting to plead for clarity around what he thought might be a conflict between the rules and Act 46 that could cause duplicative effort.
"If Williamstown and Northfield are going to do this, we don't have time for the rulemaking process," he said, laying out plans for getting a proposal out the door by the end of November, including back and forth with the Agency of Education, a Town Meeting Day vote and a possible revote. "It is not a simple matter of saying wait and see what happens. I need clarity to go back. Just please make it clear up front."
Russo-Savage, who had been the lawyer for the General Assembly's education committees when they crafted Act 46 and the previous school merger laws, said she understood the issue Schneider was raising but needed time to sort through it.
Bill Talbott, deputy secretary of education, indicated that it wasn't the time or place for this conversation. "You are just initiating the rulemaking process," he told board members. "Then there is a time for public comment. You will have a chance to consider it again."
Talbott's comments were followed by more public inquiry. Board Chair Stephan Morse explained to the public that the rulemaking process is "lengthy and (rules) can change during that process," and he asked that people hold their questions for now but participate in the rules process.
In the end, the board voted unanimously to accept the agency's draft rules for alternative structures. They will be prefiled with ICAR for the review process.
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