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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Should Vermont Give School Districts More Time To Implement Act 46?

Howard Weisss-Tisman
VPR News
The Senate Education Committee met this week to talk about giving school districts more time to come up with merger plans required under Act 46.

Vermont lawmakers are debating whether they should slow the process for implementing the state's school consolidation law in order to give more challenging districts extra time to figure things out.

Act 46 forces single school districts to consider merging with districts in nearby towns.

A lot of school districts have moved ahead with their merger plans, but throughout the state there are pockets where the law has been much harder to implement.

In southeastern Vermont, a group has formed to try to convince voters to reject an Act 46 merger plan.

Tom Ehrenberg lives in Putney, and he helped organize the group, which is working to defeat the pending school district consolidation plan among Brattleboro and the surrounding towns.

"We're sort of the southeast contingent of people who are, at the moment, focused on trying to defeat the merger proposal that the Windham Southeast is putting on,"says Tom Ehrenberg. "We're also working with other districts that are having very similar struggles."

The group met in Putney this week to talk about scheduling meetings and getting the word out about the vote that's needed on the merger plan. Ehrenberg says there's a lot at stake.

"The moment the district consolidates, Putney Central School Board ceases to exist," he says. "The same is true for Dummerston School Board. All of those school boards then become non-existent. So in that sense, it's virtually irreversible. So we want to take more time to consider a broad range of options before taking such a drastic step."

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Windham County residents have formed a group to fight a proposed Act 46 plan. They met at the Putney Public Library recently.

But time is running out for Putney, and for all of the other school districts in Vermont that are struggling to meet the deadlines of Act 46.

Vermont's school district consolidation law was set up in three phases, and the tax incentives that went along with those timelines jump started a lot of action across the state.

Chittenden Sen. Philip Baruth, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says he's not sure it makes sense to give towns like Putney more time to work out their merger plans.

About half the students in the state are within districts that have had their merger plans approved, and Baruth says it's those deadlines and tax incentives specifically that encouraged so much movement on Act 46 to date.

"There's the sense of anxiety about loosening those deadlines in that it will take away the prime mover for communities that have been successful," he says.

"There's the sense of anxiety about loosening those deadlines in that it will take away the prime mover for communities that have been successful." — Sen. Philip Baruth

Bills in the House and Senate would give towns more time to work out their merger plans, and the Senate Education Committee is debating whether an extended timeline is a good idea.

Baruth says towns that approved their Act 46 plans admit that the deadlines helped move the process along.

"They've all said to us, 'We were able to move through the process because there was an endgame in this bill,'" Baruth says. "If the endgame goes away or if the endgame is substantially weakened, the fear is that the people who don't want to move forward will at that point use that as their central argument. That, 'We don't really have to move because there's not an endgame.'"

A lot of towns around the state are still searching for that endgame.

They're small, rural and independent-minded. They have quirky structures or they're bumped up against larger districts that fit more easily into the Act 46 template.

Peacham School Board Chairman Mark Clough testified before the Senate Education Committee this week. He told the committee that there's a lot about the law that makes sense, but he says rural districts like Peacham's need more time to figure out what's best for their kids.

"I guess our feeling was that the preferred structure fit very well with a number of districts that were already out there, but it fits better in larger urban settings," he said. "It hasn't matched really well with the rural situation. And then when you start to get distances and geographical isolation and stuff, it's gotten kind of clunky."

"When you start to get distances and geographical isolation and stuff, it's gotten kind of clunky." — Peacham School Board Chairman Mark Clough

So lawmakers are trying to make it less clunky, but they don't have easy options.

About a dozen merger proposals are up for votes on Town Meeting Day, and a lot of those districts put their plans together thinking there was a hard deadline.

Pushing the deadlines out could scuttle the process. But at the same time, towns want those tax incentives that expire in July, and they say they need a little more time.

Windham County Sen. Becca Balint, a member of the Senate Education Committee, says the committee is trying to figure out how to move forward.

"We talk about this idea of low-hanging fruit, that there were some mergers that happened fairly quickly because they had already had the conversations," says Balint. "Our challenge is we're hearing from the study groups that are having more challenges with some of the details, and that's what we're going to be looking at ... How you accommodate some of the schools and districts that are geographically isolated?"

The Senate Education Committee is also traveling around the state to hear from communities that have passed merger plans, as well as from school boards that are stuck in the process.

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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