Last Stand: Vermont School Districts Vow to Fight Forced Mergers | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Last Stand: Vermont School Districts Vow to Fight Forced Mergers

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There were no fiery speeches or testy exchanges as Vermont's State Board of Education discussed what to do about school districts that are fighting to remain independent. A small audience watched on October 29 as board members did their work in a dimly lit auditorium at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon. The subdued scene belied the high drama of this moment.

Act 46, the most significant overhaul of Vermont school governance in decades, is now in its fourth, final and most controversial phase. The state board is poised to force at least 35 districts to merge against their will, dissolving their individual school boards to form larger, multi-town governing bodies. The board will make its final decisions by the end of November.

Supporters say this process, though painful, is playing out as intended. They suggest that to change course now would be counterproductive and unfair to districts that merged voluntarily. Critics contend that the state board has gone too far, imposing a one-size-fits-all model that will inflict irreparable harm on their schools and communities.

Calais resident Scott Thompson, who described the state's approach as "merger or bust," sees it as part of a larger trend of "disempowering regular people."

His central Vermont district has been provisionally ordered to merge with those of four nearby towns and is one of at least 20 districts preparing to sue the state once the board completes its work. Several communities are so desperate to avoid consolidation that they've considered closing their public schools and reopening them as private ones. Even some lawmakers who voted for Act 46 are now speaking against it.

"I'm concerned about what this is doing to my town," said Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chair, who backed the 2015 legislation. A number of her constituents, including Thompson, believe a merger — which in their case would require Calais and Worcester to assume school debt incurred by neighboring East Montpelier, Middlesex and Berlin — is unjust. Some residents worry the eventual result would be closure of Calais Elementary School.

Amid all the angst, it's easy to forget why the state undertook this ambitious effort. As the number of students in Vermont has declined, many school districts have struggled to provide a good education at a reasonable cost. Lawmakers passed Act 46 to induce districts to band together so that they could share resources and find efficiencies.

"We're doing this work to make sure students have more, not less," state board chair Krista Huling said in an interview last week.

During its earlier phases, Act 46 offered districts tax breaks and other incentives to encourage them to merge. A total of 157 districts took advantage of these deals and reorganized into 39 new districts.

"That's pretty unprecedented," said Rebecca Holcombe, who served as education secretary from 2014 until April 2018. Holcombe believes the completed mergers enabled school boards to propose unexpectedly low budgets in March. While describing the mergers as "a roaring success" in some districts, the former secretary acknowledged that some newly unified districts have yet to see the benefits.

The 95 districts that chose not to merge were required to propose "alternative governance structures" that would still meet the goals of Act 46. Some districts described ways they could collaborate while retaining independence; others proposed merging, but in a configuration different from what the state preferred. Lawmakers left it up to the state board to rule on whether to accept those proposals or force mergers.

In roughly 40 cases, the board has determined that it is either impractical for districts to merge — for instance, because they're too far apart — or impossible. The law states that districts can't be forced to merge if they have different operating structures, which, for example, prevents the board from compelling a district with school choice to merge with one without.

Huling said that the board's work is going "as smoothly as can be expected."

At the October 29 meeting, board members made a second round of provisional decisions.

Though in general there was little dissent on the board, at least one member expressed misgivings.

"I'm asking myself, what's the problem we're trying to solve here," Bill Mathis, a board member, former superintendent and longtime education scholar, said at one point.

Mark Perrin, another board member, said, "We're trying to remain consistent with our obligations [under Act 46]."

Mathis seemed unsatisfied. "Beyond complying with the law, what is to be gained here?" he asked.

State board members maintain that they don't have much latitude when making merger decisions. Their task is simply to enforce the law as written. But Act 46 is complex and at times vague. It states that mergers should be pursued as long as they are "practicable," without defining the term.

At one point during the North Clarendon meeting, a man in the audience whispered to another, "Do these guys actually know what they're doing?"

Members are scheduled to meet again on November 15 before making final decisions on November 28. Huling said she expected little to change between now and then.

The legitimacy of the board's decisions has been somewhat undermined by a number of state officials who have, in ways direct and indirect, questioned how the board has interpreted Act 46.

Even Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), who chaired the Senate Education Committee while it drafted Act 46, now has misgivings. Cummings said she "envisioned a little bit more flexibility on the part of the board" but conceded, "we did give them the authority to make this decision."

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who also served on that committee when he was in the Senate, has repeatedly suggested on the campaign trail that he thought the law allowed more "off-ramps" for districts that opposed consolidation.

"I think what we're seeing is that the final phase of a very controversial and complicated law is coinciding with an election season," Holcombe suggested. Noting that the three-year-old measure was tweaked in 2017, she said of legislators, "they may not like [it], but they had an opportunity to fix it."

The prospect of a forced merger has provoked anger particularly in communities in which residents, not just school boards, have voted — in some cases as many as four times — against merging. (In some communities in which school boards decided against merging, no district-wide vote was held.)

In an October letter to the state board, Sens. Becca Balint (D-Windham) and Jeanette White (D-Windham), both of whom voted for Act 46, claimed they didn't realize districts would be forced to merge even if residents voted against it.

The law has been hugely controversial in the southeastern county they represent. The towns of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney all shot down a proposed merger, but the state board recommended one anyway. Voters in the nearby town of Windham narrowly defeated a plan to merge with Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane and Townshend.

"To ignore our vote makes a mockery of democracy," Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) told the state board at a meeting last month. Partridge, who said then-House speaker Shap Smith convinced her to vote for the legislation, now regrets it. The rep also chairs the Windham School Board, which governs a locally cherished K-6 school with two teachers and 16 pupils.

Many of Partridge's peers in the Statehouse have strenuously insisted that Act 46 is about reducing the number of school boards — not schools — but she is among the skeptics. If Windham is forced to merge, she predicted, "I believe they will systematically dismantle the school."

Windham town residents would have only one representative on an 11-member unified board, she said; that "is no power whatsoever." If the school were to close, Partridge said, students would have to travel over what she described as a "freakin' steep" road to attend another school. Partridge, who also drives the school bus on occasion, said she herself has slid sideways down what's known as Windham Hill.

On November 26, Windham voters head to the polls to decide whether to close their elementary school before the merger takes place. The goal would be to reopen it as a private school, but the Agency of Education has disputed the legality of such a move, and there's no guarantee such a venture would succeed.

Huling said board members have taken community sentiment into account when making decisions, but she pointed out that nothing in the law states that districts should be exempted on that basis alone. Still, there are questions about whether mergers will succeed when imposed upon unwilling participants.

Balint observed that Act 46 has so far had a perverse effect on some districts: "The intention was not for towns and districts to be torn apart ... We really wanted it to be a great coming together."

"Act 46 has really served as a way to divide a supervisory union that was working very well," said Susanna Culver, chair of the Calais School Board. "Whenever you get a group of well-educated, highly independent grassroots people and you sit them down and tell them, 'Now look, I'm gonna tell you what to do,' it's not gonna end well."

Some districts, including Calais, have begun planning for a merger even as they prepare to fight it. They don't have much time to waste. New districts must be up and running by next July, although sympathetic lawmakers may try to push back that deadline when they reconvene in January.

"I think forcing a merger under these circumstances may create problems that last for decades," Ancel said. "The one sort-of fix that I hope the legislature will take into consideration is a delay in the start date."

Cummings has discussed the concept with Ancel, but she said, "I wouldn't expect folks to depend on legislative benevolence at this point."

Districts appear to have learned that lesson; many are instead placing their hopes in the court system. Northeast Kingdom attorney David Kelley sent a letter to the state in August suggesting that forced mergers are "arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law" and warning of a lawsuit. More than 20 districts have since indicated they'll join this legal effort. In response, the state board hired attorney Tom Little to advise it.

Kelley, who declined to detail his legal strategy, didn't sound overly confident. "Whenever you sue the state, you do it reluctantly," he said. "They have a lot of good lawyers. Money is not an issue. The state generally gets a lot of deference in court."

Holdout districts hope the lawsuit will at least result in an injunction, buying some time. And disillusioned lawmakers may bolster their case.

"What I want is for, ultimately, these towns to feel like they've truly been heard," Balint said. "If it has to come through a lawsuit, then so be it."

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