Voters postpone Act 46 merger work

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BRATTLEBORO — Residents in four towns ordered by the State Board of Education to consolidate their school districts voted 51-22 to postpone any action on the merger until April 2.

Wednesday night's organizational meeting was intended to elect officers and send the transitional board off to work on a budget, which would later be presented to a board elected to govern the new district. It had been rescheduled from January due to ongoing litigation challenging the constitutionality of Act 46, which pushed school districts to merge with the goal of improving student equity and funding efficiencies.

"I would say that nothing that caused this meeting to be moved from Jan. 9 to Feb. 27 has been resolved," Andy Davis, who is running for a seat on the Brattleboro Town School Board, said after making the motion to postpone eight agenda items until a meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. April 2.

"Some members of this community have felt harm from the imposed solution from the state board and filed legal action. The Legislature is still discussing this and may weigh in on this. And it seems inappropriate to me that we would move forward with this when we are in the same situation that we were in in January."

Franz Reichsman, Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee chairman and Select Board candidate, said he was "a little uncomfortable" about postponing the meeting. His concern had to do with preparing the budget.

"Whether it should have been postponed in the first place? I don't know," Reichsman said. "And whether there should have been a merger? I don't know."

If there is court or legislative action later, he said, "so be it."

Judy Davidson of Brattleboro said she was in favor of postponement so people's time would not be wasted.

Paul Normandeau of Dummerston noted that the individual districts already prepared budgets.

"However, if we do vote to proceed this evening and the court rules against this then we'll have to untangle this mess," he said, calling postponement "reasonable and prudent."

Superintendent Lyle Holiday said an approved budget would be needed before hiring any new staff. She advised that communities can have special town meetings to vote on budgets if the court grants an injunction.

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Business Administrator Frank Rucker said based on current law, "a very significant number of legal procedures" need to occur for the district to be operational by July 1. That includes creating relations with vendors and a new Internal Revenue Service entity, and moving employee contracts under the new employer.

"So typically a year is good practice to make a transition of this magnitude to a new entity," Rucker said, adding that the process will be on hold if the meeting did not proceed and it would defer the ability of school board candidates to submit a petition.

Dick DeGray of Brattleboro suggested letting the court decide the district's future. He said postponement would not be in the best interest of the students.

The transitional board is made up of current school board members David Schoales and Jill Stahl Tyler of Brattleboro, Ricky Davidson of Brattleboro, and Shaun Murphy of Guilford from the Brattleboro Union High School board; Michael Roberts and Kelly Young of Guilford, Anne Beekman and Alice Laughlin of Putney; and Jody Normandeau and Kristina Naylor of Dummerston, whose district is involved in one of the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Murphy made the motion to make Steven Brown temporary presiding officer and Barb Nowakowski clerk. None were opposed.

Article 2 also passed unanimously, making Robert's Rules of Order the district's way of governing "the parliamentary procedures of the organizational meeting and all subsequent annual and special meetings."

The meeting lasted about 40 minutes. Agenda items left until April are about determining a date to hold the first annual district meeting, whether the budget should be voted and board members be elected via Australian ballot, and the compensation for officers and board members. The last articles were related to paying expenses incurred by the district before it becomes operational, authorizing the district to borrow money, and mailing notices about the availability of the annual report and proposed budget.

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

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