State Headliners: As Act 46 faces Supreme Court challenge, two merged towns face school tax sticker shock

By Guy Page

Residents of the Orange County towns of Bradford and Newbury are suffering school tax sticker shock because taxes for the newly-created Oxbow United Union School District are much higher than what they had been led to expect. They don’t understand why, and neither do school administrators, says the September 18 Journal-Opinion, the towns’ local weekly newspaper.

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Oxbow Unified Union School District voters approved a budget after being told taxes would go up just 3 or 4 percent. The school board has learned taxes would rise over 10 percent.

As local taxpayers and school officials grapple with their distressing problem, a Craftsbury lawyer is arguing before the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier that the Vermont State Board of Education exceeded its authority under Act 46 when it ordered school districts to merge, like it or not.

In June 2019, attorney David Kelley of Craftsbury, on behalf of the Athens School District, filed suit in the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling upholding the board’s power to force mergers under Act 46.  His Aug. 15 court document asks the court to rule that a Nov. 28, 2018 forced merger order by the State Board of Education:

  • Fails to adhere to Act 46’s mandate that the Board find that merger is necessary before calling for the forced merged of existing school districts
  • Exceeds the authority delegated to it by the Legislature in Act 46 when it ordered the merger of school districts against their will; and
  • Violates voting rights, constitutional separation of powers, the Education Clause and the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution.

The Vermont Attorney General responded Sept. 19 that Act 46 empowers the State Board to force mergers and does not violate the Vermont Constitution. It is not known when the Vermont Supreme Court will rule. Meanwhile taxpayers in Bradford and Newbury may wonder whether their merger-inspired financial pain is comparable to teething — sharp but passing — or more like a toothache, bound to get worse without treatment.

In June, Oxbow Unified Union School District voters approved a budget after being told taxes would go up just 3 or 4 percent. Sept. 16 the school board learned from the state that taxes would rise over 10 percent, the JO, a weekly newspaper since 1865, said. School board meeting reporter Lillian Gahagan wrote, “A clear explanation was not available from district administrators, who also admitted they were just as surprised as everyone else.”

An Orange East Supervisory Union superintendent told Sept. 16 attendees the state’s “longitudinal system” and calculation of “equalized pupils” affect tax calculations. She pledged to get more information from the Dept. of Education but cautioned that tax bill corrections — if any — wouldn’t be issued until after the current tax payments are due.

“I’m not feeling real good about this,” Paul Jewett, former Newbury school board chair, reportedly said. “In Newbury, we are feeling the full brunt of this merger. The state didn’t have the courtesy to inform us. This is not a way to build trust.”

Newbury is among the towns that have challenged Act 46 in court.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Flickr/401kcalculator.org
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3 thoughts on “State Headliners: As Act 46 faces Supreme Court challenge, two merged towns face school tax sticker shock

  1. What ever happened to individual rights?? Act 46 is just another scheme devised by the Dem/Prog/ Lib super majority to foist a “we know better” law on the folks, like it or not. If if causes taxes to go through the roof, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

    • ‘Individual Rights’ exist but are being ignored. That’s the point. They are being disregarded/circumvented by BOTH the Plaintiff’s (school boards) and the Defendant (the State Board of Education/SBOE).

      The problem with the current complaints against the SBOE rest with the local school boards bringing the action on behalf of their ‘district’ (a political entity) because they are unwilling to cede their so-called ‘local authority’ to the State. The pot is calling the kettle black. One oligarchy protecting its turf against another oligarchy – both duly elected/appointed, both with equal disdain for Individual Rights.

      Remember this: the current education inefficiencies and poor student performance we are experiencing in Vermont resulted, first, because of local board mismanagement. Now the State is consolidating that governance, not changing it, ostensibly to improve the system – which is proving to be ineffective too.

      If your local school boards were as sympathetic to the Individual Rights on which our Constitutions are based (both U.S. and State Constitutions), they would accept and adhere to their statutory obligation to consider an individual parent’s right to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children. But they don’t, because they are just as beholden to a tyranny of the majority controlled by special interest groups – as is the SBOE.

      There is only one action required to clean this mess up and remove the education of our children from political philandering. It is Comprehensive School Choice Tuition! And it can be legally adjudicated if ‘Individuals’ take the steps they are required to.

  2. The most important aspect of this case is the distinction between due process protections for an ‘individual’ and due process protections (or lack thereof) for ‘school districts’, as noted in the recent Superior Court Act 46 rulings.

    1. “Due process protections do not apply unless the government has deprived an individual of a protected property right.”

    2. “This Court has already found that entities such as the Plaintiffs [the school districts] do not have a fundamental right to any particular form of school governance; therefore, their objections to changes in school governance imposed under Act 46 do not implicate the violation of a constitutionally protected right.”

    In other words, the current lawsuits against the State Board of Education (SBOE) list ‘school districts’ as the Plaintiffs, not the individuals in those school districts. Had an individual (or groups of individuals in a class action) sued the SBOE, they would have standing.

    The Superior Court ruling went on to say:

    “… in Brigham v. State of Vermont, 166 Vt. 246, 265, 692 A.2d 384
    (1997), the Supreme Court found that Vermont’s “distribution of a resource as
    precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere
    fortuity of a child’s residence” and therefore violated the Common Benefits Clause.”

    So, riddle me this. If my school district provides its 7th & 8th grade parents school choice vouchers to choose the school (public or independent, in the district or out of the district, in the State or out of the State) that they believe best meets the needs of their children, are the parents in my neighboring school district (that does not provide the voucher) being deprived of a ‘common benefit’ and ‘equal protection’ under the law?

    Of course, the answer is Yes, their property rights are being violated. But they have to sue as ‘individuals’ to implicate the violation, not as a ‘school district’.

    Of course, the answer is Yes, their property rights are being violated. But they have to sue as ‘individuals’ to implicate the violation, not as a ‘school district’.

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