SVSU seeks clarity on Act 46

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BENNINGTON — Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Jim Culkeen said that conversations with the Agency of Education and legislators are ongoing as to the fallout of Woodford warning a re-vote on last month's merger proposal under Act 46.

"Even if the vote passes it's going to generate even more questions," he said.

Under the law as it stands now, districts that did not complete a merger by Nov. 30 must submit a Section 9 report to the state with information including how they sought to comply with Act 46, how they are already meeting the goals of the law, and suggestions for the future of the district. Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe would then utilize these reports in creating the proposal for a statewide education plan that she will submit to the board next year. However, Woodford's choice to re-vote on the merger proposal that was narrowly defeated there in November, the necessity of submitting those reports has been called into question.

"Now that Woodford has scheduled a re-vote for Jan. 9, you could wait to see what happens on that vote," said Culkeen to the Shaftsbury board on Wednesday. "If it was an affirmative vote for a merger then you wouldn't have to file a Section 9. What Donna Russo-Savage from the Agency of Education said today that if the vote were to fail, you'd have a very short window, basically you'd have to turn around and give that report immediately."

On the other hand, he said, there was little harm in submitting the report by Dec. 26 regardless of the Woodford vote, as if the merger were to pass, the secretary would simply not consider them.

To that end, the SVSU has prepared a draft report that can be used by any of the boards if they so chose. Essentially, said Culkeen, the draft report incorporates information that was already included in the Articles of Agreement for the merger that was voted on in November, including the details of the discussions the districts have already had and how they are already cooperating.

If the Woodford vote fails for a second time, the districts will simply have to wait and see what the secretary proposes. There will then be opportunities to submit testimonies to the State Board of Education before they vote to adopt or alter the plan. On the other hand, if the vote were to pass, there would still be no guarantees of a merger taking place.

One thing that will need to be sorted out is the tax incentives. By the letter of the law, when the merger vote failed, it ended any chance of the districts receiving the tax incentives promised by the state to districts that agreed to merge before Nov. 30. However, said Culkeen, there may still be a path to seeing those credits realized.

"There's questions about what will happen with the incentives," he said. "You missed the cutoff date, but we're getting indications from the legislature that there could be legislative action, if this vote is positive, to give those incentives. If the incentives aren't there, Shaftsbury and Bennington, who passed it, may want to then decide whether they want to re-vote, because if the incentives are off the table, what Shaftsbury and Bennington voted for would be very different than what would happen, because the incentives wouldn't be there. So, it gets complicated. It may not end on Jan. 9."

"There's disagreement in the AOE about whether the incentives are in play," he said. "Our attorney feels that AOE has the authority to say that they are. But that's never going to carry any weight, really its going to take the legislature to say. And we are getting indications that, if that vote passes, we have met the intent of (the law)... So, I can't give you a definitive answer, other than we'll keep looking at it."

Shaftsbury Chairman Ed Molloy put forth that it would be better to submit the Section 9 report, as that would at least show the Agency of Education that the board is trying in good faith to comply with the law. The board will consider the content of the report at their next meeting, a budget meeting scheduled for Monday Dec. 18 at 5:30 p.m. in the SVSU offices.

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

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