Skeptics release report regarding forced mergers

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MONTPELIER — Forced mergers proposed under Act 46 rely on misleading data, represent executive overreach, and dismiss the Legislature's intent in writing the law, a grassroots group argues in a new report released Wednesday.

Vermonters for Schools and Communities released "Unfair and Unwise" at a press conference during a State Board of Education meeting in the Statehouse where board members heard from dozens of livid school officials about compelled mergers proposed by the state's Agency of Education.

Margaret MacLean, a retired Vermont principal, education consultant and former member of the State Board of Education, dismissed the plan in a speech to a small audience of two dozen people.

"The Secretary of Education's plan regarding involuntary mergers misguides the State Board of Education, violates the law, and damages public education," MacLean said.

Act 46 is in the final phase of its implementation, and the state must decide what to do with districts that haven't merged voluntarily. The Agency of Education has recommended 18 forced mergers to the State Board, which will have the final say later this year.

Lawmakers anticipated that not all school districts would find a neat fit for consolidation, and the law allows schools to suggest their own path through alternative governance structures.

Vermonters for Schools and Communities says the secretary of education has ignored the law by making recommendations that require districts to merge.

"These interpretations of the law constitute executive overreach that is a de facto repeal of Section 9," the report states.

The report also argues that by forcing districts with different levels of debt to merge, the state would ignore Act 49, a law passed in 2017 that amended Act 46 and specifically listed indebtedness as a consideration for allowing for alternative

governance structures. Seventeen boards have cited debt in arguments against mergers, the report says.

House Ways and Means chair Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, submitted testimony to the State Board in support of that argument, saying the Legislature had amended the law to include consideration of indebtedness - despite opposition from the Agency of Education.

"AOE's opposition to consideration of debt in both traditional and alternative mergers has found voice in AOE's report, ignoring a clear legislative enactment with which the Agency disagrees," she wrote.

The state board has been holding a series of meetings to get input from communities facing compelled mergers under the secretary's plan. The meetings have seen standing-room attendance from irate local officials.

Board members have until Nov. 30 to make their call, but they are expected to release their decision earlier to allow districts enough time to begin their budgeting process accordingly.

State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling said she didn't consider the report "objective." But she also said the board likely wouldn't just accept all of the agency's recommendations.

"Knowing this board, I don't think it's going to be a rubber stamp on the secretary's plan. I do think there's disagreement on certain areas," she said.

Debt could become a sticking point, although Huling herself said she didn't think it should be a deal-breaker for a merger.

John Carroll, another state board member, at the conclusion of the meeting urged his peers to start thinking about how their interpretations of the law might differ from the agency's.

"The agency seems to understand that debt, and the presence of disparate debt burdens is not grounds for deviation from a preferred structure. But my reading of statute is perhaps it is. I may be wrong," he said.

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