VERNON – When it comes to school governance and school choice, Vernon voters have reaffirmed their desire to go their own way.
Residents on Tuesday voted 238-47 in favor of withdrawing the town school district from the regional educational union, known as Brattleboro Union High School District No. 6.
The move allows Vernon – via a special legal provision the Legislature approved – to unilaterally leave the union and pursue its own Act 46 school governance solutions.
It’s still unclear how that might take shape. But proponents had argued that withdrawal was critically important because it allows Vernon to preserve its unique school choice options.
“There are still many questions, but certainly I think Vernon being out of the district gives us far more options,” Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert said Wednesday.
Spurred by Act 46, Vermont’s 2015 law to create larger school governance units, Vernon initially was involved in talks to merge all of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s school districts into one.
But the town dropped out of those talks in spring 2016 when it became clear Vernon’s school choice setup would be jeopardized by a merger with districts in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney – none of which offers choice.
Vernon’s situation is unique both regionally and statewide: Officials say the town has long operated under a special statute allowing it to be a member of a union high school district while also offering school choice for grades seven through 12.
Officials proposed resolving the Vernon impasse by allowing the town to legally separate itself from the BUHS No. 6 union, allowing the other four towns in that union to continue debating an Act 46 merger among themselves.
This spring, the Legislature stepped in with a solution.
Hebert, a Republican House member who represents Vernon and Guilford, led a successful push for special language in the omnibus education bill allowing Vernon to vote itself out of the union. The language applies only to Vernon, officials have said.
That led to Tuesday’s revote on the withdrawal question. Though the town had considered the same issue last year, the Vernon School Board fielded a fair number of inquiries before the vote.
“There were a lot of questions that were really good questions,” Hebert said. “And I think we answered them.”
As was the case before, school board members argued that there were few negatives to leaving the regional district.
For instance, Windham Southeast officials have said that, from the perspective of debts and assets, Vernon’s departure is “a wash” and will not hurt any of the involved districts’ finances.
Also, many of Vernon’s students are expected to continue to attend Brattleboro’s middle and high schools, albeit under a tuition agreement.
Vernon’s district also expects to maintain a relationship with Windham Southeast, preserving services like transportation and professional development. Hebert said unionized school staff would remain in the same bargaining unit.
However, the nature of Vernon’s proposed relationship with the supervisory union remains to be seen.
Vernon officials at one point discussed a contractual agreement with Windham Southeast. But Hebert now is leaning toward exploring a “side-by-side” Act 46 merger that – under changes recently approved by the Legislature – could allow Vernon to join with the other districts while maintaining its independent governance and school choice.
“In any event, we do want to in some way be linked with them,” Hebert said.
Much depends, Hebert said, on the outcome of ongoing Act 46 talks among the other Windham Southeast districts.
“For now, the impact (of withdrawing from BUHS No. 6) is none at all,” he said. “We have to wait and see what the new union is going to be – if they’re going to merge, if they’re going to stay the same.”
Even after Tuesday’s vote in Vernon, a merger of the remaining districts in Windham Southeast is far from a sure thing.
Some residents have questioned whether such a merger would provide more financial flexibility or better educational opportunities – the two main goals of Act 46. And the state Agency of Education, while offering guidance, has declined to recommend a course of action for Windham Southeast.
Superintendent Lyle Holiday, who succeeded the recently retired longtime Superintendent Ron Stahley, said the union’s Act 46 study committee already has modified its draft merger proposal to remove Vernon from the mix.
In that sense, Tuesday’s Vernon vote “should have no impact on the Act 46 merger plans,” Holiday said.
She said officials still expect to submit a merger proposal involving Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney to the State Board of Education for consideration at the board’s September meeting.
If that happens, and if the state board approves the plan, the four towns may vote on a merger Nov. 7, Holiday said.