Oct. 10 eyed for local Act 46 vote

BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee approved the articles of agreement for a merger on Thursday, setting the stage for an October vote that could decide the fate of the school system.

During the meeting, which lasted almost two hours, the committee finalized the language in the draft articles written by consultant Dan French and named the new school district that would be created should residents of a majority of the SVSU's five town's approve a merger. The committee decided to continue with a name that been a symbol of the cooperation between the communities for years: The Mount Anthony Union School District.

While the articles and merger plan have not been officially finalized, as committee chairman Donald Campbell and French have the authority to make non-substantive changes over the next week or so before the merger plan is submitted to the state, this represents a major step towards creating a unified school district under Act 46 of 2015. After the plan is submitted to the State Board of Education for Review, assuming it is approved, the next step will be for voters from Bennington, North Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford to approve the merger. The committee has been in communication with the town clerks, and hopes to hold the vote on Oct. 10. Community forums to discuss the implications of a merger will be held between now and then.

Language was written into the articles that will prevent any closing of schools within the first five years after the new district begins operation in July 2019, and requires two votes of over 75 percent of the new school board, held no less than one year apart, in order to close a school after that point. Similarly, students could not be moved out of the schools that they currently attend for at least five years. After that point, the committee was hopeful that the new district board that would give parents a degree of inter-district choice as to where their students attended, but French advised against tying the new board's hands by including that in the articles.

One potential roadblock to the vote coming to fruition is the North Bennington Prudential Committee, which oversees the non-operating North Bennington Graded School District, and has indicated that they would not like to see a vote in their community, as a positive vote, while unlikely, would see years of hard work in implementing pre-kindergarten through grade six school choice undone. Should North Bennington hold a vote on the merger plan and vote yes, they would be voting to give up school choice, without which parents would have to pay full tuition to send their children to the independent Village School of North Bennington, where most of the village's students currently attend, if it was even able to remain open.

On Thursday evening, however, French said that as a member of the current MAU district, North Bennington must be included in the vote. If the committee chooses not to warn the vote, he said, and if North Bennington's voters do not petition to get it onto the ballot, the merger will automatically fail. Several members of the study committee, which North Bennington has not participated in, were concerned that North Bennington would sabotage their merger opportunity by not allowing the vote to proceed.

Prudential Committee member Matthew Patterson responded to those concerns on Friday, saying that his committee has no intention of preventing a merger of the other communities in the SVSU. He said that Thursday's meeting was the first he had heard of North Bennington being required to be part of the vote, and said the the Prudential Committee is seeking legal counsel as to whether or not that is true. If either their own legal counsel or the SVSU's can demonstrate that North Bennington has to hold a vote in order for the other town's merger to proceed, he said, the committee would warn the meeting as soon as they were able. However, he said, the Prudential Committee would still prefer not to hold a vote, which he said would cost thousands of dollars and be of no benefit to the village.

"The result of an affirmative vote, by people who probably don't understand the implications, would be catastrophic," he said, adding that it would most likely be the end of the Village School.

Assuming the vote goes forward as planned, and that North Bennington votes no as expected or is allowed to abstain from voting, three of the four remaining communities would need to vote 'Yes' in order for the merger to take place, including Bennington, who the articles list as a "necessary" district. If a community votes no, they will not be part of the new district at first, but the state would still be able to forcibly merge them into the district when its statewide education plan is released next year. Should the district be created, any districts that vote to join will receive several years tax incentives meant to lessen any negative effects of a merger, while districts forced in later would not.

If the merger should take place, all assets and debts of the member districts, including the property of the existing MAU district, would become property of the new district as of July 1, 2019, unless the districts divest them prior to that date. There would also only be a single board for the district, made up of four members from Bennington, two from Shaftsbury, two from Pownal, and one from Woodford. Those members would be elected in the same manner as representatives from the MAU district today.

The full video of the meeting is available on Catamount Access Television's YouTube page. The draft merger report and articles of agreement, although they do not yet include the edits made on Thursday, include the tax rate implications for each community, with or without incentives, and are available on the SVSU website.

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


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