SVSU urges 'Plan B' on school district mergers

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BENNINGTON — At the advice of legal counsel, local school districts that have been ordered to merge are being asked to approve their individual district budgets by the end of this month, in light of a lawsuit that challenges Act 46, the state's school board merger law.

Though the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is proceeding on the assumption that the merger will go forward, it has advised the four districts scheduled to merge to approve their individual budgets and warn them for a vote on Town Meeting Day as a "Plan B," in case those districts still exist as of July 1.

"We are doing our due diligence in creating a second pathway, should the courts or the legislature take action," SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen said in a statement.

The Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford districts have been ordered to merge, creating a unified union elementary school district, by July 1, 2019. The Pownal School Board voted last week to join a high-profile lawsuit with over 31 other districts against Act 46, injecting confusion into a merger process that has been marked by last-minute changes and reactions ranging from support to bewilderment to anger.

Pownal is the only district in the SVSU to decide to legally challenge the required Act 46 merger, which was announced in a final plan

issued by the state Board of Education in late November 2018.

The Pownal School Board on Wednesday voted to approve its $4.3 million fiscal 2020 budget. The budget represents an increase of 3.7 percent over the current fiscal year, and would add an estimated 3 cents to the tax rate.

The SVSU is still operating under the assumption that the new union district's transitional board will be sworn in in February, said Derek Carson, public information coordinator for the supervisory union. If the board is sworn in, these district budget votes would become null and void, he said.

The SVSU learned Wednesday that the Agency of Education had instructed the districts involved in the lawsuit not to approve their individual budgets, Carson said. The SU's lawyer advised the SU to proceed as they had previously recommended, he said.

The Bennington, Shaftsbury and Woodford district boards have already held their January meetings; they will have to hold special meetings to approve and warn their budgets. The SVSU can't require the boards to warn their budgets by that time, but Carson said he doesn't see any reason why the boards would choose not to.

"I expect they will view this the same way we do, which is, regardless of their feelings on the merger, this is a Plan B," he said.

Carson said he doesn't anticipate any big changes to the draft budgets the districts have already been working on.

Before Pownal voted to join the lawsuit, the boards had planned that they would provide their individual budgets to the transitional board for consideration by now, Carson said.

"There is a small amount of work to do left on the budgets, but they were basically [already] ready to go," he said. "The boards have been working on these budgets in some cases since November."

The organizational meeting of the new union district had been warned for Jan. 15 by Dan French, state secretary of education, but was pushed back to the third week of February as a result of a motion filed by the Vermont Attorney General's Office in Washington County Superior Court, where the legal challenge has been filed.

That 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.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Merriman, David Kelley, and Ines McGillion, claims that the state Agency of Education and the state Board of Education had misinterpreted their powers under Act 46 and were acting in an unconstitutional way in forcing many town school districts to merge, losing their independence and representation in the process.

The legal challenge was initially brought by 31 school boards across the state — predominantly of small rural schools — in Washington Superior Court in December 2018, setting up a legal confrontation over the Act 46 forced mergers that are now underway in school districts.

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


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