Grafton gets update on Act 46 lawsuit
GRAFTON — School districts involved in the legal challenge to Act 46 might know by the end of the year whether it will be successful, the executive director of the Alliance for Vermont School Board Members told Grafton officials Monday.
David M. Clark of Westminster, who is also chairman of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, said the challenge was filed with the Vermont Supreme Court, and he said the challengers expect oral arguments will be held either later in October or early November.
Clark, who is also a member of the Bellows Falls Union High School board, said the Alliance received a large anonymous donation to help pay for the legal bills, but he said that funds were "rapidly dwindling" and that he hoped the alliance had enough money to pay for the full legal challenge.
The issue boils down to whether state agencies can overrule locally-warned votes, Clark said.
Clark made a pitch to the members of the Grafton Select Board to send in a donation.
Grafton officials had asked Clark to address the board on an update about the lawsuit; Grafton is one of about two dozen school districts that are challenging the controversial law.
Under Act 46, Grafton, Westminster and Athens are now formed in a "transitional" elementary school district, and as a result, Grafton's property taxes have gone up substantially.
Grafton taxpayers, in addition to the $1.4 million it raises to support its students, has to raise an additional $539,000 to send to the state, Hardy Merrill, chairman of the Grafton Board of Listers told the Select Board.
State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, who represents Grafton in the Vermont Legislature, said her town of Windham also continues to struggle with Act 46. Partridge, who is also chairwoman of the Windham School Board, said Windham had succeeded in remaining a standalone school district - with a tiny school.
"We're standing alone," said Partridge. "We've been part of the lawsuit."
Windham has a tiny school with 19 students, and until recently it was even smaller. A family with seven children recently moved to Windham, she said, increasing the school population.
She said the Windham school budget went up 16.2 percent, largely because the state does not reimburse school districts for pre-K special education costs. As a result, she said, Windham's per pupil costs are very high - about $21,000 - which puts Windham in the penalty level.
For comparison, the Grafton-Athens school currently has 49 elementary students, split almost evenly between Grafton and Athens.
While Partridge said she had voted for Act 46, she did so because she was under the impression it would be voluntary.
Grafton Select Board Chairman Joe Pollio said that Grafton and other so-called 'gold towns' that were 'sending towns' (property-wealthy towns that send more tax money to the state than they need to run their schools), had always been told that residential property owners would never pay higher taxes than non-residential property owners.
Clark said that all three towns - Westminster, Grafton and Athens - that were forced into the new Windham Unifield Elementary School district - all passed their own school budgets. Clark said he realized that Westminster's school indebtedness was causing Grafton's taxes to go up, but it wasn't something Westminster wanted.
"I'm not upset with Westminster," said Select Board member Allan Sands. "I'm upset with the state."
"I think it's hugely unjust," Clark said.
Contact Susan Smallheer at email@example.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.