Path to SVSU Act 46 vote unclear

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BENNINGTON — With deadlines rapidly approaching, it is still unclear if the districts of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union will find a path forward to merge under Act 46.

Act 46 Study Committee Chairman Donald Campbell, who also serves on the Bennington Select Board, answered questions of the SVSU board on Wednesday night, and painted a picture of a committee that is determined to see voters have a choice on whether or not to merge and receive tax incentives or not merge and potentially be at the state's mercy in terms of being forcibly merged when the State Board of Education releases its statewide plan in 2019, but faces several important hurdles before that vote can take place.

"The state is going to merge communities that don't merge themselves," he said, "so we can either merge on our own terms now and take some number of millions of dollars in tax incentives or we can do nothing and the state will come down and merge us mandatorily, and we won't have a lot of control over how that happens."

Most pressing is the North Bennington Prudential Committee's hesitance to warn a vote. The Articles of Agreement the committee agreed upon form a merged pre-K through 12 operating structure, which North Bennington could not be a part of while retaining school choice for grades pre-K through six, which the community voted for in October of 2012 and again in January of 2013. The study committee assumed from the beginning that North Bennington would vote not to merge, but consultant Dan French made clear at the last meeting that they must hold a vote or else the entire merger will fail.

"What our consultant is telling us, and that may not be the final legal answer, is that in order for this merger to take place, all the (communities) need to take a vote on this proposal, including North Bennington," said Campbell. "I had just always assumed that North Bennington was going to flatly vote this down, so we didn't put a lot of thought into what would happen if North Bennington didn't vote it down. In fact, we didn't put any thought into that really, we just assumed that North Bennington would vote this down."

The implications are unclear as to what exactly would happen if North Bennington voted yes, but it would appear to mean the end of school choice, and thus also the end of tuitioning students into the now independent Village School of North Bennington, which was the public school in North Bennington until it was closed and re-opened as an independent academy in 2013. Campbell said he spent many hours in Wednesday on the phone with Matthew Patterson of the Prudential Committee, as well as representatives from the Agency of Education, to try and find a compromise, without much luck.

"We're at kind of a hard spot right now," said Campbell. "It hasn't worked out, that's why I talked to Matthew for such a long time, we're trying to find out if there might be some way through this... But a lot is going to happen in the next month. Either something is going to get warned, and there will be a lot of talk about this or we'll be at a legal impasse and we won't be able to move forward."

"North Bennington has been an active and engaged partner," Campbell clarified, "and I know this sounds political, but this is a tough knot to untie. We've been talking about different options. We really have been trying to work through things. A lot of it has to do with a setup that's been in place for a long time, and a direction that (North Bennington) chose that's a great direction, frankly, it's just not the direction that we've all chosen. And then Act 46 came down and made those two things not mesh very well."

Ray Mullineaux, North Bennington's representative on the SVSU board, criticized the committee study committee for not considering one of the options created under Act 49, this year's amendment to Act 46, that could allow North Bennington to remain in the SVSU, despite having a different governance structure than the other communities. Under Act 49 districts may merge in a "Three-by-One Side-by-Side" configuration, in which three or more districts merge, and together with an existing district form a supervisory union. Arlington, which operates schools pre-K through 12th grade, is currently considering a similar scenario in which it would enter into a three-by-one with Sandgate, Stratton, and Winhall, three non-operating districts that are drawing closer to a merger. French is also the consultant for that study committee.

"Some options that were available were not presented, and we end up with a convoluted proposal that, in order to get where you want to go, you want it to fail on the vote in a partial way," said Mullineaux. "I think that's crazy."

The North Bennington School Board sent a letter to French and SVSU legal counsel Steve Stitzel with a list of questions and concerns earlier this week, and voted in a special meeting that, should those concerns not be addressed to the board's satisfaction, that the board's lawyer file a Complaint for Declaratory Judgement and a Motion for Injunction until they get clarity on the questions raised in the letter. That letter has not yet been released to the public, and Mullineaux declined comment on its contents, saying that it was still being finalized.

"It's not all about the money, but a couple million bucks for the taxpayers is something I'd really like to make happen, if possible," said Campbell. "At the very least I'd like the taxpayers to have a chance to vote on it. Maybe they all vote it down, but it doesn't feel like I should be making that decision or we should be making that decision."

"Those tax incentives are a lot of money, but its not enough money that we should do the wrong thing," he said. "It's not something where we should rush into something that's not good for the community. We have to really be walking that fine line of working with some urgency and precision, which I think we've tried to do this summer, but also not being reckless. We're in a difficult spot right now, I'm not sure how its going to unravel, but I do think we're going to find some way to make it unravel."

The documents agreed to by the study committee are available on the SVSU website. The Act 46 committee will be meeting again on Aug. 31.

"By early September we're going to know a lot more about how we're moving forward with this," said Campbell. "There are a lot of different possibilities about how this might go between now and the 31st." He pointed out that in order to receive tax incentives, a vote must be taken and ratified by Nov. 30. Furthermore, in order to coincide with the Bennington's water bond vote, that vote would need to be held on Oct. 10, and properly warned before that, meaning that if that timeline is to be followed, the current disagreements with North Bennington must be sorted out by early September at the latest.

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

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