(Editor’s note: This story is by Chris Mays, of the Brattleboro Reformer, in which it first appeared online May 11, 2016.)
BRATTLEBORO — Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe says the Vernon School Board has no legal authority to withdraw the school district or its statutorily appointed members from the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 study committee.
“The Vernon School Board’s recent vote neither dissolves the Study Committee nor affects the nature of its work. If the Study Committee ultimately decides to recommend formation of a union school district then it may choose to name the Vernon School District either as a ‘necessary district’ or as an ‘advisable district,'” Holcombe wrote to the WSESU, “even if Vernon’s appointees choose not to continue to participate.”
Savings of $1 million associated with the “accelerated” merger, expected by some school officials but doubted by others, is now off the table. That pathway would have consolidated all districts within the supervisory union into something called a supervisory district. The tax relief would have been 10 cents per $100 of assessed property for homestead taxpayers in the new district for the first year. The break would drop by 2 cents every year after.
With Vernon’s not wanting to be involved in a vote that the committee was planning to hold in June, the prospect of the unified district was questioned. The committee decided not to vote on sending its report and articles of agreement to the Education Agency last week then canceled its meeting this week. Members of the committee wanted to obtain an opinion on Vernon’s departure from the committed — approved by the Vernon School Board on April 25 — before submitting the documents. The meeting scheduled for Wednesday was looked at as crucial for meeting deadlines.
The accelerated pathway was deemed dead in the water by committee chairwoman Alice Laughlin on Tuesday. An opinion from Holcombe was released to the media the next day.
“All voluntary mergers within the Act 46 framework are governed by processes established in statute nearly 50 years ago and that remain unchanged by Act 46,” Holcombe said. “Nothing in existing law authorizes or contemplates withdrawal of an individual district once it has become a formal member of a study committee and the district’s representative members have been appointed. In fact, if a school board had this authority, then even if a district joined a study committee upon petition of 5 percent of the voters (because the school board initially voted against participation), nothing would prevent the school board from subsequently subverting the voters’ petition by later voting to withdraw the district from the study committee.”
Under state law, Holcombe said, a study committee can discontinue only if the committee decides to prepare proposed articles of agreement. Then it no longer exists when the clerk of each voting district has certified the vote of the electorate to the state’s secretary of education. Or, if a study committee decides it is “inadvisable” to form a union school district, then the committee’s work is over.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
The composition of a study committee is “unaffected by any action of a school board regarding the district’s membership and participation,” Holcombe said, explaining that appointed members do not report to the school boards.
“Rather, when a study committee’s work is complete, the committee presents its findings and report to my office,” she said. “If the report recommends formation of a union school district then a vote to approve or disapprove the proposal is taken first by the State Board of Education and then by the districts’ voters.”
The school boards’ only authority, according to Holcombe, is to “review and comment” upon the proposal before it is submitted to the AOE.
Holcombe said she hopes the “duly appointed” committee members from Vernon choose to continue to participate in future meetings until the committee’s work is completed.
“Pursuant to statute, the Study Committee must determine whether the formation of a union school district is advisable and, if so, prepare a report and proposed articles of agreement identifying all necessary and any advisable districts,” she concluded.
Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert said he was digesting the opinion and the board was waiting to hear back from attorneys on the matter.
“I think it speaks to what’s wrong with the whole Act 46 process. It’s stripping the authority away from duly elected officials,” he said. “When you look at the establishing of an Act 46 study committee, no one made it clear we were relinquishing all our authority. It was just going to be this advisory group to explore options for changing governance.”
Hebert felt the process was “not really well-explained,” he said.
“In some respects, I think it’s deceitful to not put all the facts on the table,” he added. “At this point, what Rebecca (Holcombe) said, that’s her opinion. I don’t want to have this thing go to court.”
The possibility of having Vernon voted out of the Brattleboro Union School District in order to protect school choice for Vernon’s students was recommended by AOE legal counsel at Monday’s meeting, according to Hebert.
“I think that’s the course we’re going to take,” he said. “We don’t want to be a roadblock to everyone else. But we want to do what’s best for our town and students. Maintaining school choice is very important.”
If you want to keep tabs on Vermont's education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.