BRATTLEBORO — The hourglass has run out for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union on the most financially attractive option for district consolidation.
"The merger will not be able to have an accelerated path so the voters will not be able to take advantage of the tax relief and transition funds," WSESU Act 46 Study Committee Chairwoman Alice Laughlin said Tuesday.
Last week, a vote on whether to send a report with the committee's findings to the Agency of Education was put off until a legal opinion on Vernon's deciding to leave the study was obtained from the agency. This week, a meeting scheduled for Wednesday was cancelled.
Superintendent Ron Stahley said more clarification from the AOE and the supervisory union's legal counsel on timing and options was needed.
On April 25, the Vernon School Board voted to "withdraw immediately" from the Act 46 Study Committee and not be included as a member of "any Act 46 district" in which Vernon would only be an "advisable" district. This move left some questions on how a vote would be handled with the remaining districts but also whether Vernon taxpayers would still need to vote.
Attorney Chris Leopold suggested identifying all the districts within the supervisory as "necessary" to the merger, according to Stahley. The language "advisable" and "necessary" is used by the AOE with regard to voting on mergers.
"If you pick and choose who's advisory, it can create quite a bit of dissension," said Stahley.
The committee is tasked with figuring out the best way to comply with Act 46, the law which requires district consolidation around the state. Altogether, the committee has held 18 meetings.
At the May 4 meeting, Laughlin told committee members she thought it would be "good to approve" the report as long as edits were minor. The report includes detailed information on how separate districts within the existing supervisory union could combine under Act 46 and become a supervisory district. That would be considered an "accelerated merger" and would allow homestead taxpayers to receive a 10-cent discount per $100 of assessed property in the first year. Every year after, the break would decrease by 2 cents. The transition funds mentioned by Laughlin are offered to districts in place of small-schools grants.
For the tax break at the highest level, a vote would need to be conducted in June. Stahley said the committee could regroup and look at other options if the unified district did not get approved.
Ian Torrey, committee member, expressed concern about attempting to hold a vote by then.
"I already think the timeline is too short for us to proceed, especially with one or two legal questions we're waiting on," he said.
Laughlin had urged the committee to vote, saying she thought it was important to make a decision at the meeting.
"Those of us who'd like to see this put in front of the voters need to say that," she said. "If we want to make this happen, I think we need to keep the process moving. We are very tight on time but we do have enough time."
That changed Tuesday. The meeting scheduled for the next day was looked at as crucial to hitting deadlines that would involve getting the report to the AOE and a stamp of approval from the Vermont Board of Education.
not as chair of Brattleboro or on behalf of the study committee. (Copying Alice so she knows what I am saying.)
"My main thought at this moment is the same as it was when I first heard of Vernon pulling out: I wish that Vernon would sit with the rest of us on the study committee to figure this out. Vernon had a named member of the study committee, and an alternate. From the very beginning, they made it clear that they wanted to maintain school choice," said Jill Stahl Tyler, who chairs the Brattleboro Town School Board chairwoman and is a member of the study committee member but spoke on behalf of herself. "The study committee tried to do that from the start, but we were told that it was not possible. Even then, the study committee and the administrators of our supervisory union kept trying to find a way. I was pleased — I think we were all happy — when we were told that we could grandfather their students. The study committee put into the articles of agreement grandfathering Vernon school choice for seventh to 12th grades."
Vernon's response to that was "a gracious thank you," Tyler said. But the next thing from Vernon was a statement of resignation from the committee.
"Act 46 is supposed to be about kids' equity in education and addressing the costs of education," Tyler said. "As we've looked at the issues, I personally see a lot of inequities right now in the results and the program offerings we have in our different schools. I also see opportunities for bettering the education we provide to all of our kids. I think that's a positive thing, really: bettering the education for all of our students. At the same time, we have a 23 percent decline in student enrollment the last 14 years. Twenty-three percent. That's substantial. We have an increase in costs of 45 percent in 10 years. That's not sustainable, and I believe that this merger would help."
Tyler apologized to taxpayers, recalling calculations expected to provide about $1 million in tax relief to taxpayers in districts within the supervisory union.
"Some have said that all taxes are probably going to go up," she said. "If that's true, then the 10 cent (reduction) was even a bigger deal."
She is urging districts to "work together to come to answers for our kids and our taxpayers" but said it requires everyone sitting at the table.
"And right now, Vernon is missing. I hope they come back."
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext.273.