Act 46: Vernon has 'no legal authority' to leave study committee
BRATTLEBORO >> Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe says the Vernon School Board has no legal authority to withdraw the school district or its statutorily appointed members from the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee.
"The Vernon School Board's recent vote neither dissolves the Study Committee nor affects the nature of its work. If the Study Committee ultimately decides to recommend formation of a union school district then it may choose to name the Vernon School district either as a 'necessary district' or as an 'advisable district,'" Holcombe wrote to the WSESU, "even if Vernon's appointees choose not to continue to participate."
Savings of $1 million associated with the "accelerated" merger, expected by some school officials but doubted by others, is now off the table. That pathway would have consolidated all districts within the supervisory union into something called a supervisory district. The tax relief would have been 10 cents per $100 of assessed property for homestead taxpayers in the new district for the first year. The break would drop by 2 cents every year after.
With Vernon's not wanting to be involved in a vote which the committee was planning to hold in June, the prospect of the unified district was questioned. The committee decided not to vote on sending its report and articles of agreement to the Agency of Education last week, then cancelled its meeting this week. Members of the committee wanted to obtain an opinion on Vernon's departure from the committee — approved by the Vernon School Board on April 25 — before submitting the documents. The meeting scheduled for Wednesday was looked at as crucial for meeting deadlines.
The accelerated pathway was deemed dead in the water by committee Chairwoman Alice Laughlin on Tuesday. Legal counsel recommended the committee request an opinion from Holcombe. That would be needed before moving forward confidently "as we see fit," Laughlin said the next day when an opinion from Holcombe was released to the media.
"All voluntary mergers within the Act 46 framework are governed by processes established in statute nearly 50 years ago and that remain unchanged by Act 46," Holcombe said. "Nothing in existing law authorizes or contemplates withdrawal of an individual district once it has become a formal member of a study committee and the district's representative members have been appointed. In fact, if a school board had this authority, then even if a district joined a study committee upon petition of 5 percent of the voters (because the school board initially voted against participation), nothing would prevent the school board from subsequently subverting the voters' petition by later voting to withdraw the district from the study committee."
Under state law, Holcombe said a study committee can only discontinue if the committee decides to prepare proposed articles agreement. Then it no longer exists when the clerk of each voting district has certified the vote of the electorate to the state's secretary of education. Or, if a study committee decides it is "inadvisable" to form a union school district then the committee's work is over.
The composition of a study committee is "unaffected by any action of a school board regarding the district's membership and participation," Holcombe said, explaining that appointed members do not report to the school boards.
"Rather, when a study committee's work is complete, the committee presents its findings and report to my office," she said. "If the report recommends formation of a union school district then a vote to approve or disapprove the proposal is taken first by the State Board of Education and then by the districts' voters."
The school boards' only authority, according to Holcombe, is to "review and comment" upon the proposal before it is submitted to the AOE.
Holcombe said she hopes the "duly appointed" committee members from Vernon choose to continue to participate in future meetings until the committee's work is completed.
"Pursuant to statute, the Study Committee must determine whether the formation of a union school district is advisable and, if so, prepare a report and proposed articles of agreement identifying all necessary and any advisable districts," she concluded.
Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert said he was digesting the opinion and the board was waiting to hear back from attorneys on the matter.
"I think it speaks to what's wrong with the whole Act 46 process. It's stripping the authority away from duly elected officials," he said. "When you look at the establishing of an Act 46 study committee, no one made it clear we were relinquishing all our authority. It was just going to be this advisory group to explore options for changing governance."
Hebert felt the process was "not really well-explained," he said.
"In some respects, I think it's deceitful to not put all the facts on the table," he added. "At this point, what Rebecca (Holcombe) said, that's her opinion. I don't want to have this thing go to court."
The possibility of having Vernon voted out of the Brattleboro Union School District in order to protect school choice for Vernon's students was recommended by AOE legal counsel at Monday's meeting, according to Hebert.
"I think that's the course we're going to take," he said. "We don't want to be a roadblock to everyone else. But we want to do what's best for our town and students. Maintaining school choice is very important."
Laughlin said the committee spent the last six months "intensely talking about our schools, our towns, and our students' education while studying Act 46 compliance" and options around consolidation. Concerns and frustrations were heard.
"Our smaller communities fear that much we hold sacred would be lost by merging and the committee shares the same concern. We have worked hard to create a report and articles of agreement that allow communities to continue to shape and support our schools, and celebrate who we are. We then determined that the merger we are now proposing is a logical and sensible option," Laughlin said. "Study committee consensus indicated that it should be given consideration by the electorate via the accelerated path as that option was open. It would have been fiscally irresponsible for us not to allow the voters to consider it as the sensible path towards the merger that gives the best educational opportunities for our kids and allows our small schools to stay open and thrive."
Disbanding the Brattleboro Union School District was discussed by the committee to allow Vernon, and other towns, to have school choice. But, Laughlin said, the idea did not sit right philosophically with most of the committee.
"That would also become a highly complicated dynamic due to BUHS debt and assets. We were advised that we could grandfather Vernon school choice until 2022 and that seemed like a reasonable approach to the situation," Laughlin said. "If that approach was not acceptable to the people of Vernon, they would have voted it down. The accelerated merger would have needed a passing vote in each town for the unification to have gone forward. It is too bad we did not get the opinion by Secretary Holcombe last week so the study committee could have comfortably put the vote in front of all five towns. It is very unfortunate the Vernon representatives did not stay at the table and contribute to the process and hope they will do so now."
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