What's next for Act 46 in the SVSU?

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BENNINGTON — After voters in Pownal and Woodford rejected a proposal that would have merged the Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, Woodford, and Mount Anthony Union school districts, many in the region are left wondering: What's next?

The results of Tuesday's vote are not considered final until at least 30 days after the vote. Until then, either the Pownal or Woodford school boards, or citizens in either of those towns who are able to get a petition with at least 5 percent of registered voters, could compel a reconsideration vote. Only one of those towns would need to pass a vote to have the proposal go into effect, since it has already been approved by voters in Bennington and Shaftsbury.

But tax incentives promised by the state for passing an Act 46 consolidation are almost certainly off the table. Because a re-vote would need to be warned at least 30 days in advance, even if it were to pass, there does not seem to be a pathway to the districts meeting the Nov. 30 requirement to receive tax incentives for merging.

Assuming that there are either no re-vote attempts or they do not pass, the next steps for each of the boards in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union will be to submit a report under Section 9 of Act 46 that details the following, according to documentation on the Agency of Education's website:

-An evaluation of the district's current ability to meet the five goals of Act 46;

-A description of meeting with the boards of one or more other districts to discuss ways to promote improvement throughout the region in connection with the goals of Act 46;

-A proposal submitted to the Secretary of Education and the State Board of Education that proposes that the district either maintains its current structure, works with other districts to form a different governance structure, or enter into another model of joint activity.

These reports must be submitted by Dec. 26.

Once those reports are submitted, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe will create a proposal for a statewide governance model, which is due June 1 of next year. During that time period, districts may have conversations with Holcombe in advance of her report. The State Board of Education will consider her plan when releasing its own plan, which is due on Nov. 30.

In its final statewide plan, the State Board is required under the law to merge unmerged districts and redraw SU boundaries to the extent necessary to create sustainable governance structures capable of meeting the educational and fiscal goals of Act 46.

Among the information the state board will consider in making its final determination will be the Section 9 reports, the merger proposal that went before voters, and testimony from school board members, members of the public, the Agency of Education, etc.

"The State Board doesn't 'approve' or 'deny' a Section 9 proposal in the way that it approves or denies a merger proposal," said a person with understanding of the situation who asked to remain anonymous. "Rather, a Section 9 proposal is 'approved' if the State Board incorporates its details into the statewide plan and is 'not approved' if the State Board does not incorporate the proposal."

There is still a lot of uncertainty about what the state board could ask of the SVSU. The districts could be allowed to remain as they are, although representatives from the Agency of Education have suggested in the past that this is not necessarily a likely outcome. The like districts in the SU could also be merged, so as to create a three district supervisory union made up of a merged elementary district (Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, Woodford), the Mount Anthony Union district, and the North Bennington Graded School district.

Something would need to change before a unified pre-K through 12th grade district, such as the one put before voters on Tuesday, could be formed. Either North Bennington would need to leave the MAU by the currently defined structure, which would require a positive vote from every member community allowing them to leave; the legislature would need to enact a new leaving providing North Bennington with a different avenue for leaving; or the legislature would need to create a new law allowing the state board to create a Modified Unified Union District similar to the proposal that went before voters.

The proposal to merge the school districts came about as a result of Act 46 of 2015, which was put into the law in order to encourage governance and spending efficiency in school districts around the state.

The North Bennington Prudential Committee met the day after the vote, and Vice-Chairman Matthew Patterson shared some of his thoughts on the next steps for his district.

"I think the outcome of that vote is actually promising," he said, "in that I suspect that two of those communities will seek a re-vote rapidly. It's one of those situations where it appears that the vast majority of the total population is in favor of this, for whatever reasons that they've talked about, and I think they would try very hard at this point to realize the benefits they're going to get from doing this as they perceive them."

Patterson said that North Bennington's path forward isn't really affected by the votes of the other communities. "We're going to be seeking some sort of alternative structure, and maybe making some proposals that we think are not only beneficial to us but, we think, beneficial the greater existing SU. The statute makes it clear that the intent is to reduce board numbers and under the current structure that's been provided to us, the smallest practicable board number is three, when in fact there are ways that it could be one, where they would not have an SU, they would have a supervisory district and we would seek a different partner."

Fran Kinney of Shaftsbury said that while he hoped the proposal would be defeated, he was disheartened by how few people voted. "You've got at least 2,500 voters, probably 3,000, in Shaftsbury alone," he said. "Look at Bennington, they've got over 12,000 people. It's voter apathy. If it had passed, fine, as long as people vote. But people don't vote anymore. It's a very small (group) of people that voted. It's very disheartening to see low numbers like that."

In total, between all four towns that voted, 2,299 votes were cast either for or against the proposal.

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

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