House ed committee kills consolidation flexibility bill

A bill that would have created maximum flexibility under Act 46 was revived briefly Thursday in the House Committee on Education.

However, after lawmakers heard from the bill’s sponsors and several witnesses before voting 9-2 in a straw poll to pull the plug.

H.15 is dead.

The House Education Panel took H.15 off the wall to give it another airing after support at a public hearing on Tuesday night. The move excited activists who want more leeway when building a new school district than the current law or that a Senate bill provides.

Immediately following the decision to take more testimony on the bill to offer more flexibility, Margaret MacLean, of Peacham, sent an email to a network of people who don’t support the current law. Act 46 is a 2015 law that calls for school consolidation.

“There is no guarantee of the outcome of this, but accepting testimony on H.15 is a really, really good thing,’ wrote MacLean, an educator and former member of the State Board of Education. She added: “This is all directly due to your work last night.”

MacLean and others have hung their hopes on companion bills S.15 and H.15, which would elevate “alternative structures.” The legislation would eliminate the preferred merger option in Act 46; change timelines and provide protections around small school grants; and require the State Board of Education to give case-by-case consideration to districts proposing alternatives and to let them apply as soon as they can instead of after November 30, 2017.

Chip Conquest
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger ​

Rep. Charles Conquest, D-Wells River, a sponsor of the bill, said study committee members get frustrated when they work hard but can’t find a structure that all the communities will support.

“If people felt they could explore an alternative and come up with a proposal, present it to the state board and have it looked at and approved, or not, now rather than waiting to the end to find out it isn’t approved” that would be better, Conquest said, adding that H.15 would do that.

Donna Russo Savage, who assists the Agency of Education with Act 46, told lawmakers the state board doesn’t have the time or manpower to do go over alternative structure applications right now.

“As a practical matter, I don’t know how we could get to any of those (alternative plans) any sooner because we are really running on empty to keep up with the mergers,” she said.

Savage said the agency has concerns with H.15 because it might put a stop to the forward momentum. S.122 is a better approach, she said because it addresses small steps that bring more flexibility.

Next week, a merger vote in the White River Valley Supervisory Union could be affected if lawmakers flirt with H.15, according to Geo Honigford, a member of the Act 46 study committee and the South Royalton School Board.

“These mergers happen because of Act 46, because of the hammer and the carrots,” he said, adding that communities in his study committee vote on Tuesday.

If the people who are not supportive think lawmakers “might approve watering down the whole Act, they will splash that all over the place – vote no and we will have more time, or vote no and they will change the law,” he said. Honigford asked for quick action from the ed panel.

The Senate Education Committee considered S.15, but after spending time criss crossing the state to various communities they rejected it and authored S.122, a bill that offers more merger options and changes some deadlines.

“H.15 is the antithesis of S.122,” said Jeff Francis, head of the Vermont Superintendents Association. The senate bill was created to help communities unite, he added.

Francis pointed out that in many places around the state people thought they couldn’t find a merger solution but eventually did. “Geo is right, (if H.15 moves forward) people will stand at ease and not respond to declining enrollments,” he said.

The House Education Committee took a straw poll vote, but not every member was against H.15. Vice Chair Rep. Albert Pearce, R-Richford and Rep. Ben Joseph, D-North Hero voted in favor of the bill.

Pearce said that H. 15 would have helped his area and much of Franklin.

Other lawmakers said there is value in parts of the bill that should be folded into S.122.

“The bill contains several initiatives worth exploring either on their own or as part of a larger Senate bill we will take up shortly,” Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren said, and added H.15 would have dismantled Act 46 and taken the state backward, not forward.

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