Bennington election sweep boosts momentum for Act 46 talks

BENNINGTON — Significant turnover on the Bennington School Board has pushed momentum toward serious consideration of an Act 46 merger of Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union districts.

Voters March 7 ousted three board members opposed to or skeptical of a merger using the model of the regional Mount Anthony Union Middle and High School District.

In their places, three candidates who have said they’re open to or support the concept of a regional district with a single school board were elected.

Christopher Murphy, one of those new board members, said he’s optimistic that consideration of a regional district model will move forward after more than a year of fits and starts for the Act 46 study process in the area. An Act 46 merger study group disbanded in August without reaching any agreements, but an informal exploratory committee was formed in the fall and now has agreed to recommend a second SVSU merger study committee.

The SVSU board also has agreed to form a merger study group, and individual town districts are considering whether to join and send representatives.

Shaftsbury’s board has voted in favor, Woodford’s board plans to meet Tuesday, the Pownal School Board will meet Wednesday, and the newly elected Bennington board will meet Thursday. The other district involved in the merger talks is North Bennington, which has yet to decide on participation in the new effort.

Even before the election turnover, there was some momentum toward crafting a merger agreement. Murphy said the idea of a regional school board now seems to have won acceptance, but questions remain about how fiscal responsibilities for a regional district can be equitably divided.

Another of the new board members, Chaila Sekora, said the prospect that consolidation could be imposed by state education officials if the SVSU communities fail to act has to be considered real. “The state is mandating that this happen,” she said. “We should determine what is the way that works for our community.”

The Bennington board has now reached the stage where “it’s a matter of having a good, solid conversation with the other communities,” she said.

The third Town Meeting Day winner, Daniel Monks, had come out strongly during the campaign in favor of a merger of local districts. “The best method I’ve seen so far is to simply use the MAU model to consolidate,” he said at the time. “It’s worked for this community for decades, and I believe it will work as a K-12 model. … Consolidation makes a lot of sense, and we should pursue it aggressively.”

Although there was some thought in January that revisions to Act 46 — which encourages and could eventually force consolidation of Vermont school districts — would make it through the Legislature this session, changes to the mandatory aspects of the law now appear unlikely. That factor was stressed during recent discussions of an Act 46 merger of seven elementary school districts in the Northshire, which passed overwhelmingly March 7 in all nine communities involved, forming the Taconic and Green Regional School District.

Unlike the Northshire merger participants, the SVSU communities most likely won’t be able to take advantage of property tax incentives in Act 46, school officials have said, because those required approval of a merger this year. But they said the districts can still avoid having the state impose a potentially less acceptable merger if no agreement is worked out on the local level.

During past discussions of possible mergers, Woodford School Board officials have generally supported the concept, and Pownal and Bennington have expressed misgivings. North Bennington, which is alone in the supervisory union in having formed an independent elementary school, remains part of the SVSU and sends its students to Mount Anthony.

North Bennington representatives have been concerned about preserving school choice, which village students now have in kindergarten through sixth grade — including schools out of the supervisory union.

The new merger study committee approved by the SVSU will include four members from Bennington, two from Shaftsbury, two from Pownal, two from North Bennington, and one from Woodford. It will be up to those boards to appoint members.

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Jim Therrien

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