A tripartisan group of more than two dozen lawmakers plans to advance legislation that would delay school district mergers that are required by Act 46.
The 2015 law created property tax incentives for communities that opted to merge school districts, and also set a deadline after which districts could be forced to consolidate. Last year, after the deadline passed and the Vermont Board of Education ordered mergers, more than 30 school boards sued to stop the process.
The coalition of House and Senate lawmakers, led by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) and Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) said the state should delay the forced mergers until those legal cases are decided.
“We need more time,” Mrowicki said.
Scheuermann, noting that she isn’t an attorney, said she believes the legal case against mandatory mergers is strong. She said that if the state forces districts to merge and then courts rule that was improper, districts might find themselves without any legitimate governing body.
“We don’t know what the results of those legal cases are going to be,” Scheuermann said. “If the plaintiffs are successful in their suit, it will be virtually impossible to unravel those merged districts once they’re merged.”
To address their concerns, the 26 lawmakers signed onto a letter addressed to the chairs of both education committees, Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) and Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne). The letter argues that the legislature has the legal power to delay the law’s implementation.
Scheuermann said the group is proposing two pieces of legislation to give lawmakers options. One bill would push merger deadlines to July 1, 2020; the other would delay the mergers to that date or until the court cases are resolved — whichever happens last.
Gov. Phil Scott said in a statement that he supports the delay, noting that districts that merged were able to do so over a period of years. The districts being forced to merge "have not had a long runway to accomplish complicated work."
"Due the complexity of this Act 46 process, we believe the legislature should consider moving back the deadline to July 1, 2020, for those districts who have been forced to merge under the State Board’s order," Scott said.
To support their call to action, the lawmakers pointed out that the legislature passed a bill in 2016 that delayed the implementation of a GMO labeling law that was being challenged in court.
The coalition includes some powerful House Democrats: House Ways and Means Committee chair Janet Ancel (D-Calais), Agriculture and Forestry Committee chair Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) and Energy and Technology Committee chair Tim Briglin (D-Thetford).
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) did not sign the letter, but she said she’s working with Webb to figure out the best approach.
“I’m open to talking about some small extensions that still really adhere to the spirit of the law,” Johnson said.
Johnson acknowledged that the legislature may have to act.
“There’s been quite a bit of confusion for some of these small towns … with some mixed messages coming from the Agency of Education, and what they may be hearing from the education agency and what they’re hearing from their lawyers may be different things,” Johnson said. “We have warning deadlines for budgets coming up. That adds to some confusion.”
Four Republican senators signed the letter: Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin), Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille).
Westman said he plans to introduce companion legislation in the Senate.
As local school boards plan to present their budgets to voters on Town Meeting Day, they’re pressuring lawmakers to act quickly to pass legislation delaying the mergers. Without clarity about the governance of school districts in the next school year, boards can’t plan their budgets.
Those concerns were evident at a press conference announcing the legislative proposal. As lawmakers took questions from reporters, Calais Selectboard member John Brabant interjected that school officials are on a tight timeline.
“In the case of Calais, our elementary school budget, which is in the throes of this, it’s voted on by Australian ballot,” Brabant said. “We have to warn it, and we have to get to the printer next week.”
Johnson said she’s “aware of the timeline” and recognizes the urgency of the situation.
“There’s a real need for clarity, and quickly,” she said.
Read the lawmakers' letter to education committee chairs below: