Committee ditches bill seen as Act 46 escape hatch - VTDigger

Committee ditches bill seen as Act 46 escape hatch

Baruth Ashe

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, is chair of the Education Committee. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

The Senate Committee on Education decided to set aside a bill that many school districts struggling with merger talks had hoped would give them a way out.

Chair Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, told the panel that S.15 would offer so much flexibility as to negate the intent of the law, which compels school districts to have talks about merging.

“We would take away the need to merge at all. There is no longer a preferred structure, and the need to merge is gone so everybody would put the brakes on,” he said.

An alternative bill the committee is drafting provides two new ways for school districts to merge and extends some timelines. “It answers many problems we have talked about,” Baruth said.

Act 46 and previous laws known as acts 153 and 156 together provide merger models for school districts to fit into. S.15 and its companion bill, H.15, would change Act 46 by getting rid of the preferred merger structure. It would elevate alternative structures, change the timelines in the law and provide protections around small-school grants while requiring the State Board of Education to give case-by-case consideration to districts proposing such structures.

S.15 would create two paths, one for districts that have completed Act 46 mergers and another for those that haven’t, and it offers them a number of off-ramps, according to Baruth.

Committee members were concerned that some of the school district representatives who have testified on behalf of S.15 were pinning too much hope on it. They wanted to provide clarity.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, said he sympathizes with communities that are struggling but that the committee should send a clear message sooner rather than later. Otherwise it would “invite people to linger in uncertainty.”

Becca Balint

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham. Brattleboro Reformer file photo

After surveying committee members Tuesday, Baruth said they will set aside S.15 and focus on the committee bill and the language they have been developing. Only Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a sponsor of S.15, disagreed.

“I think S.15 is an imperfect vehicle,” said Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, but she added that people have legitimate concerns and the committee needs to respond to them.

Baruth agreed. “(The committee bill) is an attempt to create viable options for communities having trouble. … Let’s add flexibility to the law now and move forward with it and trust that we will have more results like those that we have been having,” he said.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said he would remain open to suggestions but was against continuing work on S.15 because he hadn’t been convinced it would improve education quality for students while cutting costs. “I’m not sure I’ve heard a compelling argument in S.15 at this point for those two goals,” he said.

Members of the committee asked the chair what the Legislature’s intent had been when it created alternative structures in the law. Baruth, who was on the education panel then, said he thinks people have read the law to find an escape hatch and latched onto alternative structures. But he said that was not why they were put into the law.

“It was never merge or do an alternative structure,” Baruth said. Act 46 was instructing school districts to merge and then in the end, where places have not been able to do that, the secretary of education and state board will work with those few areas to figure out the best way forward.

“To the extent you can merge you have to do that, but if you can’t, in the end game” there would be alternative structures, he said.

“Think of the game Scrabble,” he said. “When you get to the end it is really tough, the board is locked up, and you have tiles that don’t fit with other tiles.” At the end there will be people who were not able to move — maybe a district here or there, he said. The law empowers the secretary and board to rope them together.

Benning acknowledged he was outvoted over S.15. “I do think we will have this conversation again, whether we want to or not,” he said.

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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