Pownal board re-considers Act 46 motion

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POWNAL — After not having the majority votes necessary to warn a community vote on creating a unified school district out of the communities of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union last week, the Pownal School Board re-considered the motion, which passed 3-1.

This means that the citizens of Pownal will have the opportunity on Nov. 7 to decide whether to follow the recommendation of the SVSU Act 46 Study Committee and form a unified pre-K through grade 12 district with one board, made up of the towns of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford, in order to come into compliance with Act 46 of 2015, or to make the case that the districts are already operating efficiently and that they should be left un-merged when the State Board of Education finalizes the district map next year.

Pownal was the only SVSU district — other than North Bennington, which cannot be a part of the merged district due to their governance structure, which includes school choice for students in pre-K through grade six — to fail to pass a motion warning the vote at last Wednesday's carousel meeting of all the SVSU district boards. Board chairwoman Cindy Brownell and vice-chairwoman Angie Rawling voted against the motion, while Tammy Sohl and Todd Steinhoff voted in favor. Jon Peaslee was unable to make the meeting due to a family-related conflict. Under Robert's Rules of Order, a motion must receive a majority vote to pass.

Upon learning of the result of the vote, Peaslee, who served on the study committee, representing Pownal alongside Brownell, called the chairwoman and asked that a re-vote be scheduled. A special meeting to consider the issue was held on Wednesday.

At Wednesday's meeting, Brownell explained why she voted no. "I'm afraid that the taxpayers of Pownal, the voters, do not understand enough about Act 46 to go out and vote on it."

"I just want to let everybody decide," said Peaslee. "I don't think its up to this board to decide. If 10 people show up, hey, give the 10 people their voice."

SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen said that the study committee has prepared a flier, which was being finalized on Wednesday, that will go out explaining some of the complicated aspects of the law, and what a decision in either direction would entail. Individual communities and the study committee are also scheduling meetings to discuss the implications of the vote. Pownal will hold a meeting on the night prior to the vote, Monday, Nov. 6.

"I think this is a challenging article to read and understand, but if you take the time to educate yourself as a voter, which I hope all voters would do, then we can get to the right outcome," said Steinhoff. "Giving them the opportunity to do that is important."

Rawling was not present for the vote, which passed 3-1, with Brownell again voting no. "Deep in my heart I cannot vote for something that... I just don't feel right with it," she said. "It's the hardest decision I've ever had to think about in 17 years on the board."

"To have one board, K-12, I just can't wrap my arms around it," she said. "All the years that we have tried to educate our children and give Pownal children the best they can, when you become one board, I don't understand how one group of people are going to be able to look at these elementary kids and give them what they want.

"I think this is a very difficult and important decision for the town," said State Representative Bill Botzow, who represents Pownal and Woodford. He said he understood that the board's decision to warn the vote should not be taken as a recommendation to voters on how to vote. "I think its important, because people look to you as the most experienced educational leaders."

"That's why we need to educate them," said Brownell. "We need to show them the frosting on the cake. People can call me negative, but I am positive we need to show facts, true and false. That's what needs to happen."

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

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