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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

School Districts Prepare for Court Battle Over Act 46 Mergers

Attorney David Kelley faces the camera with arms crossed.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
David Kelley, of Greensboro, is one of the attorneys who is representing about 25 school districts that want to appeal their forced mergers in court.

An attorney who represents about 25 school districts that will be forced to merge under Act 46 says the newly approved statewide plan will likely be appealed in court.David Kelley is an attorney and a former Hazen Union School Board member. He said the school districts have 30 days to decide if they want to appeal the Act 46 statewide plan that creates 18 new school districts

“The communities, the districts and the attorneys that have concerns about the board’s plan need some time to do some talking and some thinking,” Kelley said after this week’s State Board meeting where the board approved the final Act 46 plan. “The real issue is do these districts want to appeal this plan, and I think quite a few districts do.”

Kelley declined to give details on the proposed appeal.

He says about six attorneys across the state are working with the districts, and in the next few days they’ll go through the final statewide plan and come up with a strategy.

“We think there are a lot of questions about how the final decisions got made,” he said. “And I think there are questions surrounding Act 46, and questions about the process.”

According to the organization Vermonters for Schools and Community, a group that opposes Act 46, these are the communities seeking legal action:

  • Huntington
  • Barnard
  • Windham
  • Montgomery
  • Richford
  • Dummerston
  • Newbury
  • Glover
  • Berlin
  • Calais
  • Middlesex
  • Sheldon
  • Highgate
  • Franklin
  • Stannard
  • Greensboro
  • Craftsbury
  • Athens
  • Grafton
  • Westminster
  • Brighton
  • Charleston
  • Holland
  • Derby
  • Troy
  • Jay
  • Westfield
  • Irasburg
  • Brownington

The vote this week by the State Board of Education to approve the final statewide plan comes as school boards are working on their 2019-20 budgets.
Some school boards just found out in the past few weeksthat they will be required to merge, and now find themselves having to meet with the other districts and develop a joint spending plan.

Kelley said if the appeal is filed a judge could issue a stay, but school boards need their budgets done before the end of January, so there are a lot of questions about how those districts should proceed with their budgets.

“These involuntary mergers present enormous consequences that I don’t think were fully appreciated by the ed. committees when they crafted this,” Kelley said. “And I think a lot of the representatives in our General Assembly were not particularly informed when they voted on this.”

"These involuntary mergers present enormous consequences that I don't think were fully appreciated by the ed. committees when they crafted this. And I think a lot of the representatives in our General Assembly were not particularly informed when they voted on this." — David Kelley, attorney

Act 46 established a series of deadlines, and school districts received financial incentives if they voluntarily merged during the first two years of the law.

About 90 school districts did not merge during the voluntary period, and the law gave the State Board of Education authority to force some of those districts into consolidation plans with their neighbors.

The board met over the past few months, debating each proposed merger, and this week voted 7-2 to create the 18 new school districts.

State Board of Education chair Krista Huling said she expects the plan to be appealed, but she looks forward to seeing how the benefits of Act 46 play out into the future.

“I feel like this is the first step in a larger process,” Huling said after Wednesday’s meeting, which was held at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans. “I feel like this is the first step of figuring out what this new governance looks like, and the next step is making sure we have equity and excellence for all of our students in the state of Vermont. So this is the first step in having those bigger conversations.”

Huling says that while the State Board was directed to make these decisions, the newly merged districts will better serve Vermont’s school population, which has decreased by about 25 percent since 1997.

“We were tasked by the Legislature to bring their ideas to fruition,” said Huling. “But I feel like this is better for the state. We are facing demographic challenges, and we are having less and less students, and these students are more challenging. And personally for me, as the mother of two year old, I see this as looking towards our future.”

Update 11/30/18 9:02 a.m. This post was updated with the list from Vermonters for Schools and Community.

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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