School Districts Fighting Act 46 Mergers Inch Toward Meeting State's Final Deadline
Time is running out for school districts that are fighting their Act 46 forced mergers, and school boards are reluctantly putting the pieces in place to have their new districts operational before July 1.This comes after the Vermont Agency of Education sent out a sharply-worded memo last month saying it would take every action legally available to get the districts to merge.
At a recent meeting in Brattleboro, the four towns in the new Windham Southeast Unified Union District got together to organize and form the new district.
None of the school districts want to merge.
Voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Putney and Guilford all rejected their Act 46 school consolidation plan, and opponents here have been fighting tooth and nail to remain independent. A judge has yet to make a final ruling on the lawsuit that challenges the state’s authority to force school mergers.
At the Brattleboro meeting, Jody Normandeau, of Dummerston, said she was only taking part in organizing the new district because there were no other options.
“I am here tonight to help us move forward, to do the best we can for all of our students and for our towns, in the event that we end up being forced to merge,” Normandeau said. “All of our towns voted overwhelmingly not to merge. However, at this point, we are being forced to merge by state agencies that have failed to recognize or respect our votes.”
The Agency of Education wanted these districts to take care of this business back in February. But at the time, Act 46 opponents hoped a judge would put the mergers on hold, and so across the state most of these organizational meetings were canceled.
The judge did not issue an injunction, so now meetings like this are being held.
"All of our towns voted overwhelmingly not to merge. However, at this point, we are being forced to merge by state agencies that have failed to recognize or respect our votes." — Jody Normandeau, Dummerston School Board
Frank Rucker, the Windham Southeast Unified Union District business administrator, said the past few months of indecision have been tough on his office.
Rucker said he can’t apply for state and federal tax forms until there’s a new district and that without a merged budget the district can’t hire teachers for next year.
“What we have to go on at this point is a memorandum," said Rucker, referencing the Vermont Agency of Education's memo sent in March.
"Unfortunately we’re not getting any additional guidance on how to proceed,” Rucker said. “So we’re looking for guidance as well.”
Some of that guidance might come from Montpelier, where lawmakers are trying to hammer out a compromise that would give merging districts a little time to work out some of the details.
Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann sponsored H.39 and hopes the Legislature passes a bill this session.
“I knew, clearly, that it was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do any substantive legislative changes to Act 46. It just was not going to happen,” Scheuermann said. “But at the same time, if we’re going to be forced to merge we need this extra time to do it right, to do it well, and to ensure our communities understand everything that’s going on and are committed to whatever direction we’re going to go in.”
Scheuermann’s school district has its own lawsuit pending, and there’s a separate suit from Huntington, as well as a third one representing 33 districts around the state.
The judge is expected to make a ruling on the multi-district lawsuit sometime this month. But that ruling will most likely end up in the Vermont Supreme Court, which pushes some kind of a resolution even further down the line.
So attorney David Kelley, who represents the group of districts, said there’s simply no other option but to get the new districts in place before July 1.
“If you read the agency’s guidance memorandum to districts, it was mildly threatening: You go forward or we will use all available legal means to, you know, enforce the order,” Kelley said. “I think, certainly our advice to people is, ‘Here’s the law.’ And, you know, as lawyers, our duty is to urge you to comply with the law.”
But at the same time Kelley made it clear the fight’s not over. He said he believes his side will eventually prevail in court, and even if that happens months down the line, he said attorneys will then stay busy untangling the merged districts.