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As Act 46 Milestone Looms, State Reaches Out To Schools Still Struggling With Merger Plans

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Donna Russo-Savage of the Agency of Education discusses Act 46 at a meeting in Brattleboro. Russo-Savage says it was a little surprising to see how many school mergers have taken place during the accelerated phase of the new law's process.

About 20 percent of Vermont school districts have already moved ahead with merger plans under Act 46, the state's district consolidation law. Those were the easy ones.

As the next group of school districts gets ready to put their plans together, education officials know there will be some tough questions to answer.

Donna Russo-Savage works for the Agency of Education, and she's been meeting with school board members all over Vermont to help them understand the intricacies of the school district consolidation law.

It's been more than 50 years since there was similar governance change when Vermont schools merged into union high school districts.

And so Russo-Savage says it's only natural that new challenges have to be addressed.

"There are so many questions that have come up,” says Russo-Savage. “It was a really long time ago that the union high schools were formed and there are a lot of new issues that are arising. And people are trying to think ahead as much as they can, but sometimes it isn't until you're actually in this situation you realize, gosh, there's nothing in here that helps us."

Russo-Savage was part of a group that met with four different Windham County school boards Monday as the state tries to get local votes held on district merger proposals.

So far about 50 school districts have approved their merger plans.

Act 46 is laid out in three phases and Russo-Savage says the Agency of Education didn't expect so many towns to get their district consolidation plans passed during the accelerated phase.

"It was really expected that there would just be a couple of places that had really simple structures, that had long histories of working together, and that they would zoom into this situation and provide a model for other places to see how things are done,” says Russo-Savage. “The fact that there are as many as there are was a little bit surprising."

The accelerated phase, which ends on July 1, offers an extra level of financial incentives.

"What we've heard is, this process is destroying our supervisory union, people are fighting with each other." — State Rep. Mike Hebert

In Windham Southeast, which includes Brattleboro and four surrounding towns, there has been some tension over whether a vote will be held before the July 1 deadline.

State Rep. Mike Hebert is also chairman of the Vernon school board. He wants the district to slow down and work a little more on its proposal.

"There're so many unanswered questions, I think this rapid pace is ill-advised,” Hebert says. “What we've heard is, this process is destroying our supervisory union, people are fighting with each other.  People are arguing, and it's not constructive. Can we slow it down and take that additional year to do something more positive?"

The Windham Southeast board members who met Monday got their questions answered, but it wasn't clear if the district will get its proposal to the state board to beat the July 1 deadline.

The state Board of Education must first approve the merger proposals before the plans go to voters.

The state board has meetings scheduled for May and June, and statewide there will likely be another handful of plans approved in time for a vote before July 1.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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