Laughlin: A no vote on Nov. 7 will not stop a school merger

In several days, the vote on whether to form a unified union school district will be held in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney. If the vote fails, the electorate will not be considering another proposal. During 2018 the Board of Education creates the final, mandatory statewide plan based on numerous considerations of which Windham Southeast Supervisory Unions districts are only part of the whole.

Each of the four towns must have a positive vote for the merger to become official. If the vote fails in one town, a revote may be called within that town. Within 30 days of the vote, the town's school board could call for a reconsideration of the vote or 5 percent of the voters could file a petition for reconsideration.

With a positive four town vote, the unified union school district becomes operational on July 1, 2019. From now until then, that board would be working on the transition with you local school boards and school Leadership Councils. Currently there are no candidates running for the four positions in Brattleboro, or the one in Guilford, although there might be folks whose names are written in as candidates. Unfilled seats would be appointed by the unified union board, chosen from among those expressing interest. For full disclosure, I am one of two people running for the four year "At Large" position. Your school boards continue to function until then — unless there is additional business, but no later than December 31, 2019.

Homestead school property tax rate breaks, per Act 46 incentives, will be in place for the first four years of operation: 2020 ($.08), 2021 ($.06), 2022 ($.04) and 2023 ($.02) for a total nearing $2 million. A

$150,000 grant to cover transitional operational costs will granted. Dummerston and Guilford will continue to receive annual small school grants.

If the merger does not pass, the future of our educational governance structures becomes the purview of the Board of Education. Previously mentioned tax breaks will not be available; small school grants, and the $150,000 will not be funded. Act 46 and Act 49 require our school boards to submit a proposal to the BOE by the end of this year. These proposals, and others, must address how the five educational and fiscal goals of Act 46 are met. School boards may have a relatively easy submission process due to the intensive work creating Articles of Agreement for the Nov. 7 vote.

The Legislature, per Act 46, determined that a school district is most able to meet the five goals in a sustainable manner by creating a "preferred structure" — a merging of districts. The Agency of Education offers the following guidance: "The Legislature acknowledged that the 'preferred structure' may not be 'possible or the best model' to achieve the five goals in every region of the State. In these situations, it stated that a multi-district SU can meet the Goals, 'particularly if' the SU manifests specific characteristics, including having 'the smallest number of member school districts practicable' (an 'alternative structure')."

Note that just because communities may not want to merge their school governance structures does not mean it is not possible to do so nor does it mean such a change isn't the best model. While looking at the "preferred" structure, the Study Committee reviewed other paths to compliance including governance structures staying the same. None of these offered the benefits to students and taxpayers that a preferred governance structure did, nor did they comply with Act 46. One glaring lack of compliance was that retaining the same structure was not having "the smallest number of member school districts practicable."

By June, 2018 the Secretary of Education proposes a statewide plan to the BOE. They consider the plan, review proposals and by November 30, 2018 issues a statewide plan. The electorate of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney will not be voting on this final plan. The Nov. 7 vote is the only vote you will cast on Act 46 compliance.

The misinformation in our communities about what a positive Nov. 7 vote would bring is intense. All small schools will close, volunteers will no longer be welcome, great programming will stop, the Study Committee never listened to us, other people will decide how our tax dollars are spent, our children will be sent on a bus "wherever," Brattleboro will be stuck picking up the bill, and our taxes will go up. Thus — when considering how to vote, please research your information deeply and take opinions that sound like fear mongering with a grain of salt. A no vote on Nov. 7 is not one that will stop a future merger. Consider not what you fear losing but what could be gained.

The merger offered on Nov. 7 is one created by members of your local school boards over the last two years with input from the greater community. It offers educational equity, sustainability, efficiency, collaboration, educational opportunities, and local leadership. It supports students and families and is created by your neighbors who care deeply for our local, neighborhood schools.

Alice Laughlin is the Chairwoman of the WSESU 46 Act Study Committee, Chairwoman of the WSESU board, and Chairwoman of the Putney Town School District Board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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