Local legislators propose Act 46 deadline change

MONTPELIER — A group of tri-partisan legislators - Democratic, Republican and Progressive - has introduced legislation that would slow down the implementation of Act 46, to allow the Legislature and the courts to resolve legal disputes over the controversial education reform law.

Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, said Thursday that he and Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, as well as Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, had introduced legislation aimed as giving the school districts more time to resolve the Act 46 disputes. He said the legislative ad hoc group working toward resolving the Act 46 problems now include 40 additional House legislators of different political parties. He said he didn't have a count of how many senators also supported the effort.

"We're trying to make a legislative fix," said Mrowicki, whose district includes Westminster, Putney and Dummerston.

Burke said the legislation would give the state additional time, by pushing back the Act 46 implementation deadline to July 1, 2020. While the Brattleboro School Board voted in favor of the Act 46 merger, even while a townwide vote was against it, Burke said she was looking at the controversial law from a statewide perspective. "There are 25 different towns are experiencing different difficulties," said Burke.

The new legislation introduced Thursday does not go to the merits of Act 46, but rather the timing and implementation. "We're not debating the merits. We're trying to get some clarity. There are constitutional issues that need to be untangled," she said.

Westminster is actively fighting a forced merger with the school districts of Athens and Grafton, while townspeople in Putney and Dummerston had voted overwhelmingly against Act 46 in the past. Mrowicki said the three legislators had met with House Speaker Mitzi Johnson on Wednesday and had a good discussion, although he said she didn't make any promises.

Mrowicki said many of the schools are upset that the state Board of Education had rejected all the alternative governance structures that the local school boards had proposed, which he said contradicted the intent of Act 46 legislation. "There isn't a consistency with what they're doing, the Agency of Education and the state Board of Education," Mrowicki said.

He said the ad hoc group's immediate concern was delaying the implementation deadline, and pushing it back to 2020. "The more immediate concern right now is that things are moving fast," he said, referring to the three legal challenges that have been filed since late December against the law, and are currently pending in Washington Superior Court.

Schools and towns "have to have their budgets ready," he said, and if the court rules against the forced mergers or even delays them, the school districts won't have budgets to run their schools. On top of that, he said, the Legislature could change the law. Westminster, one of Mrowicki's towns, voted earlier this week to adopt its own budget, independent of Grafton and Athens. The action came in direct contradiction to advice from the state Agency of Education, sent out earlier this week. "I think they did the right thing," he said of the Westminster School Board.

Mrowicki said he's been reassuring legislators from districts who either didn't have to merge or had merged amicably that the proposed legislation wouldn't affect them or the financial benefits they received from the state because of their merger. He noted that Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, who is also chairwoman of the Windham School Board, is facing a deadline of the end of January to make a decision about the town's school budget. Windham has been told by state education officials that it has to join the West River Valley Unified School District, which includes the towns of Jamaica, Townshend, Brookline and Newfane.

"One of the heartening things from today is that it's a large tri-partisan group," said Mrowicki. "This is not a party issue. We're trying to serve our towns better."

Scheuermann could not be reached for comment following the afternoon press conference at the State House. Scheuerman's town has also been told by the state Board of Education that it must merge with an adjoining town, Elmore.

Mrowicki said that despite overwhelming votes in all three of his legislative towns against Act 46, both Putney and Dummerston are going ahead with a merger.

He said the main opposition to the forced merger of the school district was the lack of local input into the schools, and the lack of recognition that schools often represent the hub of the community.

Keeping what he called "local input" is a top priority, he said.

The legislation has been referred to the House Education Committee.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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