Now that the dust has settled on the Act 46 school merger proposals from the State Board of Education, some of the districts that are most frustrated are gearing up to be at the forefront of an upcoming legal struggle.
David Clark, of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members, is helping lead a legal effort that has attracted more than 20 districts ready to join a lawsuit. He is joined by David Kelley, a lawyer from Greensboro.
Clark says Act 46 has negatively affected the communities of Grafton, Athens and Westminster. The plan for the communities, is to merge their boards and budgets into a single entity, as mandated by Vermont’s 2015 education governance law.
Presently, Athens and Grafton have their own K-6 district, and Westminster has a K-6 district. The proposal is to combine two districts into one. Clark pointed out there are a number of variables between the two that make a merger inconvenient at best.
The proposal for the new union board is that each town gets two board members, for six total. As with other mergers across the state, these schools have different financial situations, including different levels of debt. That has tax implications for taxpayers.
In this case, the Athens and Grafton residents are looking at about a 20-cent increase in their tax rate, whereas Westminster residents would be getting a substantial tax break. Clark said the imbalance creates a tricky dynamic for the new board.
“You have two-thirds of the vote on this new board, so what are you gonna do?” Clark said, referring to the four members from Athens and Grafton. “You are going to come back with a budget figure you can afford, and Westminster will be looking at cuts.”
That’s the short-term outlook. There’s his long-term outlook that gets more tricky. The Athens and Grafton communities combine for about 500 voters, but Westminster has about 1,800 voters. Votes on school closures are up to the electorate, meaning Westminster will have the strong upper hand if the issue arises.
Under the default articles of agreement, schools can’t be closed for two years after a merger. Clark said things get interesting at that point.
“If you are Westminster, and you took a hit because Athens and Grafton trimmed your budget, you can now petition to close Athens and Grafton,” he said. “This is happening across the state. In the long run, the larger schools are gonna squash the smaller schools.”
Another issue, Clark said, is the state’s default articles of agreement seem to have become the official articles of agreement, without any input from the districts. He said last week the superintendent of schools received the warning from the state that they must have meetings for their newly merged districts not later than Jan. 29. The default articles of agreement will be finalized at these meetings. He pointed out that there was supposed to be 90 days for the district to make their own custom articles of agreement.
“Instead of reminding them they have 90 days, they are simply telling them that they have 60 days to comply with the formally default articles of agreement,” Clark said.
Jack Bryar, a member of the Grafton School Board, has concerns about the ongoing merger drama. For one thing, Bryar says that during the early days of Act 46, it was advertised that such mergers would ultimately result in greater efficiencies, and hence taxpayer savings.
As for efficiencies, he said Grafton already has them. The current supervisory union has had a stable budget for years, and they have already consolidated most of the “back-office stuff,” as Bryar described it. This includes busing, special education and other functions.
“I’m a former management consolant,” he said. “Consolidating governance has nothing to do with any of that.”
Bryar echoed Clark’s sentiment that the sharing of budgets is a major sticking point for this proposal.
“The government can’t tell you that you should pay for something you didn’t buy,” he said. “You cannot have takings of property, cannot assign debts without due process. It’s flat-out illegal in my view.”
Like Clark, he is frustrated that what was supposed to be a default article of agreement seems to have become the final copy. “They are providing an agreement which people have not agreed to,” he said.
Bryar said the issue of legitimacy for these newly formed boards is going to be a major problem.
“There is an essential problem of legitimacy all these forcibly consolidated districts will have when the communities have had these very lopsided votes against the consolidation and they are saying we’re going to do it anyway,” Bryar said. “How legitimate is this organization going to be to any resident in these communities?”
Bryar added he is ready to roll when the legal appeal gets going.
“We are named parties, we have joined,” he said. “We are some of the lead entities.”