By Michael Miley
In a effort to stop the consolidation of their local elementary school mandated by the state under Act 46, residents of Holland on Sept. 11 voted 57-21 to close the school at the year’s end. Despite comments by the Agency of Education, which suggested that closing the school would not do anything to arrest the mergers, residents and town leaders saw the vote as the only means of maintaining local control over the town’s school board and real estate. North Country Supervisory Union Superintendent John Castle did not rule out legal action against the state, calling the Agency’s comments “an attempt to diminish our dignity,” VTDigger reported.
Holland’s school woes — namely declining enrollment — existed before the passage and implementation of Act 46. But while Holland taxpayers may save money by instituting a tuition agreement with Derby, Holland residents made the decision to close their school rather than be forced to merge with their larger neighbor and become a minority member of a new combined district. By law, the state government cannot force a merger between two districts with different operational structures, and the tactic employed by Holland is being explored by other towns in the state as well. But it’s efficacy has been called into question by the state government, which released a statement earlier this month saying that closing schools would only prevent mergers if the closures occurred before the state releases its final Act 46 plan, which is expected sometime next month. This creates another difficult situation for towns that were seeking to close their schools after the end of the current school year.
Holland residents voted to close their school in part to protest what they perceive to be the state’s overreach into local affairs, as well as to preserve their community. Holland has no post office or town hall, and the elementary school functions as their de facto community center. Consolidation or merging under Act 46 would most likely result in the border town losing ownership of the physical school property, and thus the heart of the community. Even if the state argues otherwise, most community members believe that the newly-consolidated school districts would go about closing smaller schools anyway in a bid to save money — and perhaps stave off any future consolidation plans the state government might enact.
The town of Franklin is exploring legal options to stop or delay the state’s consolidation plans there. Additionally, last week the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members sent notice to the State Board of Education that they will sue if the state forces districts to merge. Another advocacy group, Vermonters for Schools and Community, has also threatened to file suit, claiming that the state has not given due consideration to good faith alternative proposals brought forth by various communities.
The potential lawsuit from the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members would claim that the state is violating the town’s Fifth Amendment rights by reassigning ownership of town properties and liability of town debt without due process or compensation. Article I, Section 2 of the Vermont Constitution contains a similar provision — known as the “takings” clause — but the Vermont Supreme Court generally looks to the federal courts when determining precedent.
State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling remains intractable, stating that lawsuits, or the threat of lawsuits will influence the board’s decisions. Huling is on record as saying the decisions being made by the towns and advocacy groups in opposition to the implementation of Act 46 are being made out of “fear” and are ignorant of what she calls “long-term consequences.” Huling believes that while small towns that submit to the consolidation process and join the new school boards would be a minority voice, they would still have some say in education decisions. This is opposed to towns that tuition their students, which have little to no say in the educational decisions of where their students are sent.
Michael Miley is a guest writer and columnist for True North Reports. He lives in West Burke, Vermont.