State orders school merger of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union

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BRATTLEBORO — A consolidated school district opposed by voter majorities in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union member towns last year now needs to be operational by July 1.

"I am putting together a timeline of dates that meet the requirements of our ordered merger," Superintendent Lyle Holiday said Monday. "The organizational meeting will occur sometime in the beginning of January. I am sending the draft warning to the Agency of Education for approval."

Articles of agreement for what will be called the Windham Southeast Unified Union School District came after the State Board of Education's final statewide plan was issued Nov. 30 as part of Act 46, a law aimed at improving student equity and finding efficiencies. The name can be changed later.

The district will provide pre-k-12 classes to students from Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney. Elementary school districts from all the towns will merge with the Brattleboro Union High School district.

THE MERGER

"In academic years 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, each student in the grades for which the new union district operates multiple school buildings will attend the school that a student residing in that town would have attended in academic year 2018-2019; provided however, that the new union district board may grant a parent's or guardian's request for student enrollment in a different school operated by the new union district based on individual student circumstances and the superintendent's determination of the school's capacity to serve the child," Article 3 says.

Next school year, classrooms cannot be reconfigured or eliminated. School buildings in the district cannot be closed in the following two school years unless approved by voters in the town where the building is located. In the subsequent school year, the board cannot close any school building or stop using any building to provide education for at least one grade unless approved by the electorate of the new district.

The new district will assume all debt, operating surpluses, deficits and fund balances that exist on June 30, 2019. All property — including land, buildings and contents — is to be transferred to the new district for $1.

The new board can offer a building to the town it is in for $1 if education will no longer be offered inside. If a town after five years of ownership decides to sell the building, the new district must be compensated for any capital improvements and renovations that come after July 1, 2019 and before being sold to the town. If a town does not want the property, it can be sold to another party.

Dummerston Town School District is one of more than 20 districts fighting forced Act 46 mergers. The decision to join a lawsuit claiming the law is unconstitutional was made after a unanimous vote of the Dummerston School Board.

"The State Board of Education final plan for forced merger violates constitutional protections and, I believe, the plain language of the law," said Kristina Naylor, Dummerston board chairwoman. "Since the final plan has now been issued and there is a tight time frame for legal action before irreparable harm is done, I expect an appeal will be filed in the next few weeks."

ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING

An organizational meeting for voters in the new district is to be held on or before Jan. 29.

"The new articles of agreement state that the Secretary of Education or designee must approve the meeting and convene the organizational meeting," Holiday said. "Once that has happened, we will be on the clock to meet all the dates as outlined in the new articles of agreement."

"Transitional" or temporary school board members will be elected from the floor of the organizational meeting. Other determinations — including scheduling the annual district meeting, deciding whether to elect board members by Australian ballots and figuring out compensation for board members — will be made the same way.

The transitional board is tasked with preparing a draft budget for fiscal year 2020, warning district meetings and scheduling an election for an "initial" board. Within 14 days of that election, the transitional board will dissolve after presenting the proposed budget to the new board.

Each town will have two seats on the board: Brattleboro and Putney each have one term ending in 2020 and one ending in 2021; Dummerston has one term ending in 2020 and one ending in 2022; and Guilford has one term ending in 2021 and one ending in 2022.

The board and voters have opportunities to amend the articles. Amendments that need approval from the electorate must be presented for a vote no later than Feb. 28.

State Board of Education Chairwoman Krista Huling said the final report explains why the board supported the Windham Southeast merger as recommended by the Vermont Agency of Education.

"Once the board concluded listening to local reactions to the plan at its July, August, and September meetings, the board began to process the testimony of the previous three months and explored potential development of defining principles," the board's report says. "While it was relatively straightforward to decide that it was 'possible' to merge a district in the sense of legally 'possible,' it was sometimes tougher for the board to determine when a merger was 'practicable.' The board wrestled with whether and how to give weight in the final phase of Act 46 to local opposition votes cast at various stages of the process and how to properly consider Act 49's guidance that a 'supervisory union has the smallest number of member school districts practicable after consideration of greatly differing levels of indebtedness among the member districts.' In the end, the board opted to focus on the text of Act 46 ... concluding that the Legislature authorized the state board to make judgments based on the goals and guidance of the acts. The board has striven to do so in an equitable way consistent with the law."

Act 46, according to education.vermont.gov, is meant to "improve education outcomes and equity by creating larger and more efficient school governance structures."

Vernon, a member of the WSESU but no longer part of the BUHS district, was in a group of districts "for which merger under the statewide plan is not possible, not practicable, or neither possible nor practicable."

"Each of these districts has an operating structure unlike the ones adjacent to them," the final report says.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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