Athens, Grafton and Westminster districts poised to fight Act 46

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.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

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2 thoughts on “Athens, Grafton and Westminster districts poised to fight Act 46

  1. Re: The current supervisory union has had a stable budget for years, and they have already consolidated most of the “back-office stuff,”….

    I don’t know what Mr. Bryar means when he characterizes his WNESU Supervisory Union as having a ‘stable budget for years’. Here are the Supervisory Union’s total budget numbers for the last five years.

    2014-15 $10.245 Million
    2015-16 $11.413 Million 11.40% increase
    2016-17 $11.547 Million 1.17% increase
    2017-18 $12.042 Million (budgeted) 4.28% increase
    2018-19 $13.045 Million (budgeted) 8.32% increase

    That’s an average increase of 6.3% per year. Meanwhile, student enrollments continue to decline – another feature overlooked by this commentary. Again, the pot appears to be calling the kettle black while the lamb stew simmers on.

  2. Not a mention of Westminster’s, Athens’ and Grafton’s 7th & 8th graders. Why is that?

    It is the glaring omission in this report exemplifying Benjamin Franklin’s cautionary characterization of Democracy. I’ve cited it before. I’ll do it again. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”

    What Mr. Clark and Mr. Bryar are not telling everyone is that the three school districts they represent have something profoundly in common. Neither district maintains a 7th and 8th grade public school program. In accordance with 16 V.S.A. § 822. (c)(1), all three districts provide ‘tuition vouchers’ to 7th & 8th grade parents allowing them to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.

    In Westminster’s case, 7th & 8th grade Education Choice is its most popular education program. I know this to be true because my children attended the Westminster public school system. My wife and I both served our district on various local school boards. And we were personally involved 20+ years ago when Mr. Clark, serving on Westminster’s school board even way back then, supported an attempt by our neighboring Rockingham school district to force a local school consolidation, eliminating Westminster’s, Athens’ and Grafton’s 7th & 8th grade Education Choice programs (a sordid tale in itself of political cronyism – reaching all the way to one of Vermont’s past Speakers of the House).

    Make no mistake. I am no fan of Act 46 tyranny, the Agency of Education or its conflict-of-interest ridden State Board of Education. But I am no fan of the local school board oligarchy either. Our ‘duly elected’ local boards have been conflict-of-interest ridden for years, and now they’re getting a taste of their own medicine – fighting with the State only to see who gets to eat the financial scraps left at the great public education watering hole by powerful education special interest groups.

    This is an opportunity for our community to finally take the education high road. We have an apolitical, efficient and dynamic Education Choice Tuitioned 7th & 8th grade system. Take politics out of education once and for all – expand Education Choice Tuitioning to all of our parents and children, in all grades.

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