State orders school districts to convene

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WESTMINSTER — Education Commissioner Daniel French has warned a special meeting of the Westminster, Grafton and Athens school districts for, April 10 as state education officials try to get the Act 46 merger ball rolling in one of the most anti-46 districts.

Christopher Pratt, the superintendent of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, which includes the towns of Westminster, Grafton and Athens, said Tuesday the special meeting would be held at the Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster at 6 p.m., and that French would open the meeting. But after that, Pratt said, it's anybody's guess.

On Friday, French sent out a memorandum to union school districts that have still not taken key steps in the Act 46 merger timeline. "The court's decision means that the unification process will go forward while the court makes a final decision on the legal case brought by the Athens et al plaintiffs," French wrote in a five-page memo to the eight supervisory unions, including the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, based in Bellows Falls, and the Windham Southeast Unified Union School District, based in Brattleboro.

Pratt said the "placeholder" name for the proposed elementary school merged district for Westminster, Grafton and Athens was "Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District."

French will open the April 10 meeting, which is the last of the eight scheduled organization meetings, elections and budget votes the state has laid out for the various merged districts, which have been fighting the mandate for months.

Pratt said as superintendent he has advocated that the school boards "follow the law because it is the law. ... My board understands the position I'm in," he said.

Pratt, who has been superintendent for less than a year, said he worked on Act 46 issues for four years when he was superintendent of the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union. He said it is important for the three towns to be prepared to serve the students after the merger deadline of July 1.

The Windham Southwest Unified Union school district, which met in February, continued its meeting until April 2.

According to French's timetable, petitions are due no later than April 8, with the election of initial board members on May 14. A budget could be presented to voters on Monday, June 17, the timetable stated.

"I want to be ready for whatever the kids need," Pratt said, noting he is going ahead with issuing teachers their contracts for the 2019-20 school year.

While the three towns have not proposed, let alone adopted, a merged school district budget, the three towns approved school budgets last week during the traditional town meeting. Grafton and Athens overwhelmingly approved its school budget, and so did Westminster.

Pratt said there is a "moving target" for what will happen at the April 10 meeting. "There are so many components, it's really tough to get a gauge," he said.

Pratt hopes the Act 46 controversy stays out of the classroom and doesn't worry the students. "It's an adult problem," he said. "It shouldn't disrupt their day or disrupt the teaching," he said.

Jack Bryar, a Grafton School Board member who is adamantly against the forced merger of the school districts, said he doesn't know what he will do April 10. "What might happen, given the unanimous votes from our Grafton and Westminster communities about fighting the forced merger, I anticipate a move to immediately adjourn without action," he said.

Bryar still hopes that the 2019 Legislature will approve a law that creates a one-year moratorium for the school districts that are being forced by the Agency of Education and the state Board of Education to merge. That one year moratorium would allow things to cool down, he said.

"It was never the legislative intent" of Act 46 to force mergers against towns' wishes, Bryar said. Rather, it should be a collaborative process.

"If you look at the history of Vermont," he said, "it was always done in negotiation."

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


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