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Supporters Of School Merger Delay To Get Key Vote In House

Stowe is one of about 30 school districts in Vermont challenging a state law that requires them to merge with other districts. House lawmakers will vote next week on whether to delay that merger mandate, to give the court case time to resolve.
Ian Noyes
VPR file
Stowe is one of about 30 school districts in Vermont challenging a state law that requires them to merge with other districts. House lawmakers will vote next week on whether to delay that merger mandate, to give the court case time to resolve.

The Vermont House of Representatives will vote next week on postponing implementation of a controversial school governance law.

Act 46, passed in 2015, requires school districts to merge into larger governance entities by July 1. But school board members like Scott Thompson, who sits on the board that oversees Union-32 middle and high schools, says the timeline has become untenable.

“It’s bedlam out there,” Thomson says.

“Bedlam,” Thompson says, because U-32 and about 30 other districts in Vermont are in a quandary. While the law will force them to merge this summer, those districts are challenging the constitutionality of that order in a Vermont court.  

So, do they proceed with the merger? Or flout the merger mandate, and hope they win in court?

Thompson says the situation isn’t lending itself to well-functioning school governance at the local level.

“We have essentially a level of confusion and bureaucratic gamesmanship, the two of them seemingly feeding off each other, which is dizzying,” Thompson says.

Which is why Thompson and others are asking lawmakers to postpone the merger mandate by one year, to let the court case play out before forcing districts’ hands.

Proponents of that delay got good news Thursday, when House Speaker Mitzi Johnson committed to having a floor vote on the question next week.

“There are 30 communities that are represented by legislators across the political spectrum who have deep concerns, who have a right to be heard,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s pledge to bring the merger-delay bill to the floor comes despite the fact that her own House Education Committee is expected to vote the bill down. Usually, when a bill fails to get majority support in a committee of jurisdiction, it’s the end of the road for that piece of legislation.

And Johnson herself says she thinks delaying the merger deadline could be problematic.

But Johnson says she doesn’t want strong feelings over the merger issue to bleed into the rest of the session.

“Without a vote, without that debate, the pressure that those representatives are feeling from their communities will create distractions on other bills,” Johnson says.

Not everyone is in favor of the merger delay. Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, says superintendents in districts that are being forced to merge involuntarily are actually the ones most likely to oppose the delay.

Prolonging implementation of the merger requirement, Francis says, could direct time and energy away from the operations of complex districts that already have an expansive set of duties to execute on students’ behalves.     

Francis says many of those superintendents also see real benefits to larger school districts that would result from the forced mergers.

Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, the lead sponsor of the bill to delay the merger mandate, says efficacy for superintendents and other district administrators shouldn’t drive education policy.

“Easy isn’t necessarily right,” Scheuermann says. “And we need to do this right for the students.”

Scheuermann says in order to comply with the July 1 mandate, districts will need to move forward with merger plans prior to knowing the outcome of the court case.

And once they start down that road, Scheuermann says, “It’ll be virtually impossible to unravel these merged districts.”

Update: This story previously mischaracterized the basis for some superintendents' opposition to a merger delay.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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