By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger
Out of the 10 school district mergers put to voters on Town Meeting Day, three were completely successful, including a large all-school choice district in the Northeast Kingdom, while four unification votes failed. Three others will create modified unified unions, or larger consolidated districts with fewer members than the potential number.
A one-vote margin in the town of Wells shot down two merger proposals, representing half of the failed votes.
In all, 57 towns voted on school district mergers at Town Meeting
Day, Tuesday; 38 approved plans to build larger governance units in accordance with Act 46 and other statutes. One town, Plymouth, ended up postponing its vote due to a possible violation of state election law (candidates for contested seats were serving at the polls). A revote is scheduled for April 18 at the Plymouth town offices. The town will vote on whether to join the Windsor Central Supervisory Union as well as elect local officers.
With 62 percent of the votes cast going to approve mergers Tuesday, six new unified districts will be created, according to the Agency of Education.
Mergers votes were successful in Addison-Rutland, Bennington-Rutland, Windsor Central and many parts of the NEK. Unification votes were unsuccessful in Rutland Central, Rutland Southwest and Windham Northeast. One proposal in Windham Central received voters’ backing, while another did not.
Two Northeast Kingdom mergers will bring together eight towns into the Kingdom East School District and nine towns into the NEK Choice School District.
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, said the results in the Kingdom were the bright spot of the night. All the towns involved said yes to the Kingdom East district. One, Lemington, opted out of the Choice district. Critics of Act 46 and its predecessors, 153 and 156, have said the laws kill school choice and don’t work in rural areas. “It doesn’t get any more rural or geographically isolated than the NEK,” Baruth said, adding, “and they set it up to preserve school choice.”
A number of proposals that voters weighed in on Tuesday listed more towns as “advisory” than in the past. Advisory towns can opt out of a merger without sinking it for others, as happens if a town deemed “necessary” decides not to go along. Modified unified unions can be formed when four or more towns choose to join up. On Tuesday, 13 towns voted against joining with their neighbors, altering three unifications into modified unified unions, and four mergers failed because of no votes.
Wells was involved in votes in Rutland Central and Rutland Southwest, where all the towns were listed as necessary. Voters in Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland agreed to join, as did Middletown Springs, but because of just one no vote in Wells, both mergers failed.
In areas where one vote prevents five towns from merging — as in Wells — or one town is left out of a huge new district, like Lemington, there can be a revote, Baruth said.
“There have been a number of successful revotes where people wake up, look at the new map and say, maybe it is better to join in … or why were we against it, maybe we should reconsider,” Baruth said.
Other towns voting against merging Tuesday included Cambridge (voting no for the second time), Orwell (voting no for a third time), Fair Haven, Wardsboro, Marlboro, Athens, Grafton, Westminster, Barnard and Reading.
Margaret MacLean, a critic of Act 46, said there isn’t enough flexibility in the law around merger options for a large number of towns in Vermont. “Currently, there are 93 towns who are not finding solutions under the one-size-fits-all rules available in Act 46. It is likely that by the end of voting this spring that this number will reach 100 or more school districts,” she said.
The Senate Committee on Education is drafting language for a bill that will add a few more options for school districts that want to merge. “The language we are looking at gives more flexibility timewise, structure-wise and (on student counts) — a combination that may help some of these communities take another look,” Baruth said.
Last year on Town Meeting Day, five mergers went forward. Act 46 study committees have been striving to find ways to bring school districts together to address declines in student enrollments and other problems.
Nicole Mace, head of the Vermont School Boards Association,said. “As you can see by yesterday’s historic results, Vermont’s school board members have risen to the challenges posed by declining enrollment, rising costs, leadership turnover, and growing inequality in student opportunity, and are charting a positive course forward for public education in Vermont,” she said.