Pownal re-votes to join Act 46 lawsuit

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POWNAL — At an emergency meeting Thursday night, the school board again unanimously voted to join a high-profile lawsuit Act 46 lawsuit, after the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's attorney, through Superintendent Jim Culkeen, voiced concern about the legality of a vote they took at a budget meeting Tuesday.

Board member Todd Steinhoff was absent.

"We're happy that we finally got it done and corrected," said Cindy Brownell, board chairwoman, immediately after the meeting.

The board is set to become the 32nd Vermont school district, and the first in Bennington County, to join the suit.

At the meeting, Culkeen said the SVSU would post tomorrow that next Tuesday's organizational meeting for the new union district is cancelled.

He said he was concerned about the ability to pass school district budgets "in a timely manner."

After their vote, board members responded to citizen questions, expressing their concern about sharing debt with other districts, which would be required under the required Act 46 merger, and about the basic fairness of the merger itself.

"They're forcing it on us," said board member Jon Peaslee of the merger. "It's BS. That's what it is. Plain and simple."

The Pownal school board must file a request with the court to be added as a plaintiff in the suit.

Brownell told those in attendance she was concerned about Pownal having to share significant debt of the Bennington school district in the merger.

And, she said, Pownal has no businesses, meaning tax increases would come through homeowners.

"It seems like this board doesn't have faith in the other boards," said Eugene P. Melville, Jr., who addressed the board. Everyone is concerned about taxes, he said, but if costs are divided among all the school districts, he doesn't think anybody has a problem with it.

"It's not just my opinion," he said. "It's a lot of people's opinions."

Brownell responded, saying she had heard from "a lot of people" that they wanted the board to take this action.

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Fred Miller thanked the board for deciding to join the lawsuit.

"The town voted," he said. "It was recounted. `No' was the answer."

Pownal voted against an Act 46 merger in November 2017 by a margin of four votes. Woodford also rejected the plan, 38-36.

A final plan released by the state Board of Education late November 2018 calls for the Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford school districts to form a new union elementary school district.

Pownal's initial vote to join the lawsuit at a budget meeting Tuesday night

called into question the timing of the organizational meeting for the new union district, which had been scheduled for next Tuesday, Jan. 15.

A motion filed by the Vermont Attorney General's office in Washington County Superior Court seeks to push back the deadline for the required organizational meetings of the merged school boards that have filed suit.

Culkeen had spoken with the Agency of Education and legal counsel multiple times both Wednesday and Thursday, Derek Carson, public information coordinator for the SVSU, said in an email.

The organizational meeting Jan. 15 was warned by Secretary of Education Daniel French. Calls and emails to the Agency of Education seeking comment were not returned as of press time.

The AG's motion also asks for more time to respond to the legal challenge filed last month against Act 46, and seeks an extension of time to resolve the lawsuit, particularly the suit's request for a preliminary injunction against the implementation of the forced merger of school districts under the law.

This motion reflects an agreement between the AG's office and the plaintiffs to postpone new union district board meetings, said Charles Merriman, one of the plaintiff's attorneys in the lawsuit.

Both parties have agreed that organizational meetings relating to the plaintiffs' districts would be warned to begin in the third week of February, according to the AG's motion. The court has not yet ruled on the plaintiff's suit for a preliminary injunction and stay, and no hearing has yet been scheduled.

Act 46, enacted in 2015, identified the preferred model of governance for the state's schools as a unified union school district responsible for pre-K through grade 12 education.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_plebouef on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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