Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe), left, with Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) on Tuesday at the Statehouse.
Vermont lawmakers narrowly defeated a tripartisan proposal Wednesday that would have provided a one-year deadline extension to school districts that have been ordered to merge by July.
The 69-74 vote in the Vermont House was a setback for communities asking for more time to set up new, merged districts — but it did not signify the end of the road.
Dozens of districts are also looking to the courts for help. They’ve sued the state Board of Education, which ordered the mergers under Act 46, arguing that the mandate is unconstitutional. Those hoping for delay said the extra time would allow for the court cases to be resolved before the districts are forced to change their governance.
Despite Wednesday's defeat, a more limited delay may still be in the offing.
House Education Committee chair Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), who did not support Wednesday's proposal, is preparing to offer a competing one Thursday. Instead of providing a one-year extension for all districts ordered to merge, Webb’s version would split those districts into groups based on how much preparation they’ve already done to prepare for a merger. Some districts would get a one-year delay under Webb's plan, but others would be required to stick to the 2019 deadline.
Webb's proposal is now the only legislative solution on the table for districts being forced to merge. House lawmakers planned to debate and vote on it Wednesday, but they ran out of time before they had to vacate the chamber for a public hearing on abortion legislation.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe), who led the coalition supporting the broader deadline extension, told House colleagues during Wednesday's debate that her proposal would give local school boards the flexibility to decide when they should merge.
“Every case is different,” she said.
Republicans and Democrats spoke up on both sides of the House debate Wednesday, many of them using the same facts to support contrary arguments. Lawmakers who prefer Webb’s fragmented delay proposal said they disagreed with Scheuermann, pointing to the same idea: Every case is different.
If Webb's plan is defeated on Thursday, school districts that have been ordered to merge would likely still be required to meet the July 1, 2019 deadline — unless a court intervenes or other legislation passes.