VERNON – After 18 months of Act 46-related strife, Vernon may have gotten some relief courtesy of the Legislature.
An omnibus education bill approved by the House and Senate last week includes language that allows Vernon Town School District to vote itself out of the regional educational union, known as BUHS No. 6.
Officials say the legislative language was carefully crafted to apply only to Vernon. And it could have a powerful effect in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union by breaking up a logjam in school merger talks while allowing Vernon to protect its unique school choice options.
“It’s pretty clear: People want to maintain school choice,” said Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, who is chairman of the town’s school board.
Act 46 pushes for larger, consolidated school districts throughout Vermont, but Brattleboro-based Windham Southeast has had a difficult time finding ways to comply with the law.
That’s in part because of some strong Act 46 opposition in the community. There’s concern about a loss of local control, as well as skepticism that consolidation will lead to better educational results.
But it’s also been difficult because Vernon is the only Windham Southeast district to offer choice starting in seventh grade. Consolidating with the union’s other schools would jeopardize that, because state officials say merged districts must offer a uniform structure of operating schools and choice.
About a year ago, Vernon dropped out of Windham Southeast’s Act 46 merger talks due to the choice issue.
Officials subsequently came up with a potential solution: If Vernon legally separated itself from BUHS No. 6, the town could go its own way while allowing the remaining districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney to continue consideration of Act 46 merger options.
The move required approval from each town. But Dummerston twice rejected it in December and February votes.
After the second vote, Hebert declared that “Vernon will never voluntarily give up its school choice. If that means we have to go to court … whatever is necessary.”
Instead of trying the courts, Hebert instead pursued a remedy at the Statehouse.
He initially introduced a standalone bill that would allow Vernon to vote itself out of the union, without the need for ratification by other towns. The issue made its way into a Senate bill relating to school merger flexibility and then, eventually, into the omnibus education bill, H.513.
After a conference committee came up with compromise language, that bill was approved by the Senate and House on Friday.
The section pertaining to Vernon says a school “may withdraw from a union high school district without approval by the remaining members” if certain conditions are met.
The allowance is applicable, the statute says, only to a district that operates a pre-kindergarten-through-six school “and historically both has been a member of the union high school district and also pays tuition for resident students in grade seven through grade 12.”
Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, a member of the House Education Committee, noted that Vernon has been allowed by special statute “to operate in this unique way” for more than six decades.
“The language that the Senate proposed was written to encompass only Vernon and was based on the statute already in law that they were operating under,” said Long, who served on the conference committee that came up with the final version of H.513.
Hebert said he worked hard to lobby for the Vernon language.
“There were some serious questions,” he said. “I sat down with both the House and Senate Education committees and explained what the situation was in Vernon.”
After some debate, Hebert said, “the resistance fell away.”
Long said the House Education Committee voted to support the Vernon language “because it seemed to be the best solution proposed for a very unique situation.”
“It was also our understanding that the BUHS District supported a contractual agreement proposed by Vernon that addressed the issue of capital debt if Vernon was allowed to leave the union district,” Long said.
That withdrawal agreement says Vernon’s debt to the regional district and the assets it would be relinquishing are essentially a wash.
Vernon and Windham Southeast officials also have said they expect the majority of Vernon students to continue to attend Brattleboro middle and high schools, albeit via a tuition agreement if Vernon leaves the union.
“It’s fully our intention to stay aligned (contractually) with the WSESU,” Hebert said.
H.513 sets up the process by which Vernon unilaterally can withdraw from the regional district: Town voters need to OK it, then the State Board of Education must approve the withdrawal based on a recommendation from the education secretary.
The process must be complete by July 1, 2019. The Vernon language in the bill expires the day after that.
Long also noted that, if Vernon officially withdraws from BUHS No. 6, the law that has allowed the town to maintain school choice within that district would be repealed automatically by language inserted into H.513.
Though Vernon voters already have overwhelmingly approved their district’s exit from BUHS No. 6, Hebert said the issue will come up for a vote again – possibly within a few months – in order to kick off the process outlined in H.513.
“I would like to get it resolved as soon as possible so that the other towns can move forward,” Hebert said.
Windham Southeast’s Act 46 study committee has asked state officials for guidance to determine the direction of future merger talks. The committee will be discussing its options at a meeting scheduled for May 25, Superintendent Ron Stahley said.