The State Board of Education members have for the first time approved the dissolution of a school district created under Act 46, the sweeping merger law passed in 2015.
But several board members said they were voting in favor of the measure solely because they appeared bound by law to do so. And they speculated about whether to ask lawmakers to step in to keep communities that had reluctantly merged from essentially opting out of the merger law.
Board members voted 7-2 Wednesday to allow the Southern Valley Unified Union School District to break up into two separate, single-town school districts. Halifax residents voted 48-0 in December to break up the unified district, and Readsboro followed suit in January. With the State Board’s stamp of approval, the two towns are set to officially part ways July 1 of next year.
Donna Russo-Savage, a staff attorney with the Agency of Education, told board members that the body had little discretion in the process, and that statutes that predated the merger law basically required them to greenlight the dissolution so long as students living in the district would continue to attend a school that met the board’s education quality standards.
“It’s pretty straightforward and limited. That you make sure that the Halifax students have somewhere to go to school, and then you grant the withdrawal,” she said.
That didn’t sit well with many members of the board, some of whom said the communities appeared ill-equipped to stand on their own.
“I have very serious concerns about the viability of these districts,” said one member, Oliver Olsen, who added the present scenario appeared “an oversight” in Act 46 that ought to be remedied by lawmakers.
“Because what we are ratifying is incongruent with the spirit and intent of what Act 46 was seeking to accomplish,” he said.
Southern Valley School Board Chair Homer Sumner defended the two communities’ decision to go their separate ways. It is not easy to travel between the two towns, which do not share a border, he said, and a recent attempt to send Readsboro’s grade 7 and 8 students to Halifax, for example, had worked well from a pedagogical perspective but had been a logistics nightmare.
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“The viability of the two schools will not be any different henceforth than it was beforehand,” Sumner said.
Board members did not discuss at length the merits of the southern Vermont merger, which united two towns that each educate well under 100 students. But they did wonder out loud whether the breakup could usher in a larger wave of requests to split up.
“Is this precedent-setting in that we might see others of these come forward?” asked board member Kim Gleason.
“The answer is yes,” John Carroll, the board’s chair, responded. “This could be the first of many proposed divorces. It probably is something that the General Assembly might wish to look at.”
Act 46 was implemented over multiple years, and eventually cut the number of school boards in Vermont by over 150. It used tax breaks to encourage voluntary mergers between school districts, and, in its final phase, tasked the State Board of Education with deciding how to reorganize those that had rejected unification.
Consolidation has been deeply controversial in many communities – particularly in smaller towns that were worried about losing their autonomy within unified, regional school districts. School boards opposed to merging even took their fight all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, where judges this summer ultimately ruled to uphold the law, albeit in a split decision.
Margaret MacLean, a former State Board member and leading anti-merger activist, said that while several districts are likely to follow Halifax and Readsboro’s lead, the floodgates may not necessarily be opened, since the law appears to require all parties to vote in favor of dissolution.
“In many of the mergers – particularly the larger mergers – the larger towns will hold the small towns captive and not let them go,” she said.
It’s unclear if the Legislature will have an appetite to revisit the bitter debates over consolidation in January, when a new crop of lawmakers will convene at the Statehouse (at least virtually) following November’s elections.
Sen. Phil Baruth, P/D-Chittenden, the longtime chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he hadn’t had the chance yet to look into the implications of Halifax and Readsboro’s breakup.
“I don’t know what any of this might mean. And we’re done now. So I will treat it completely freshly in January if I’m chair of Senate Ed,” he said.
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