The state is making final decisions on school mergers this week in a move that will bring Act 46 to its messy conclusion — and likely spark new lawsuits.
Once all merger decisions are finalized — expected Wednesday, but no later than Friday — communities that couldn’t find a suitable partner must choose whether to submit to the State Board of Education or continue the fight in court. Districts that avoid a continued fight can possibly pick up some financial incentives and gain more control over the merger terms.
But the fights may well continue.
Former Hazen Union School Board chair and lawyer David Kelley is at the forefront of the legal pushback against the mergers. He is organizing a multi-district lawsuit against the state to challenge Act 46’s constitutionality.
“[On Wednesday] we’ll know what they are doing,” Kelley said. He added that the specifics of a lawsuit will start to take shape after that.
This lawsuit would be next in line to another lawsuit by political activist H. Brooke Paige, who made his closing statements to the Vermont Supreme Court in October challenging the law’s constitutionality.
For areas like the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, located in the lower Northeast Kingdom, forced mergers are a shock because for years state bureaucrats said the local districts they were too complex to merge. Districts suddenly being asked to merge include Greensboro, Stannard, Hardwick and Woodbury.
“The schools were somewhat misled,” Kelley told True North. “They were told for years that they were the example of schools that could not be merged, and now the board says ‘we are gonna force-merge these communities.’ If this was a commercial practice, this would be a deceptive trade practice.”
Victoria Von Hessert, chair of the Lakeview Union School Board in Greensboro, agrees the state gave local leaders a false impression of likely outcomes.
“[It] was our understanding going into it that we couldn’t actually be merged because we thought we had different structures,” she said. “It caught everybody off balance, and you know it takes a little while to get your footing back under you again and try to figure out what that’s gonna mean for your community and most importantly for your schools.”
Von Hessert said some leaders wish to take advantage of tax incentives, grant money, and the ability to write articles of agreement, which are being offered to districts that take initiative towards a merger. The articles of agreement are especially important, she said, because this allows local districts to address potential school closures, sharing of debt, who gets representation on the new board, and more.
Elsewhere in the state, Barre City and Barre Town schools also are under pressure to merge against the voters’ will.
In early November the communities voted, and in Barre City, 1,887 voters were in favor of consolidation, versus 567 against. In Barre Town, 2,106 were against a merger compared to 1,262.
Barre City School Board Chair Sonya Spaulding said the state this week will either reassert its decision to require a merger or else change its decision. Then, in January, there will be a revote just for Barre Town residents. She said this creates all different combinations of outcomes.
Spaulding also said the advantages to initiating the merger at the local level includes tax breaks, grant money and having more control over the articles of agreement.
The Barre Town revote is very important because if the State Board doubles down on Wednesday and calls for a merger, the vote allows one last opportunity to obtain the benefits of an unforced merger.
“The one sticking point … is that revote that Barre Town has petitioned for,” Spaulding said. “If that passes with the adequate number of yes votes then we can still get it incentives and we can still have the articles of agreement, because they are petitioning the vote that we just had.”
Another controversial merger being closely watched involves the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown districts. The State Board of Education last month to merge the schools’ boards, despite a recommendation to the contrary in June by then-interim Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey.
Representatives from those districts argue that they are already achieving greater efficiency standards by working within the current supervisory union structure.
Some communities, in a last-ditch effort to avoid losing control of their schools, have proposed closing their schools. In Holland, a small town by the state’s northeast Canadian border, residents voted to close the school and send children to Derby. The hope is that the community can maintain control over the building and perhaps reopen as a private school in the future.