On November 12, 2015

Lawmakers urge Vermont Board of Education to reverse school choice ruling

By Bruce Parker, Vermont Watchdog

State lawmakers on Thursday, Oct. 29, sent a letter to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and State Board of Education Chair Stephen Morse, urging the board to reverse a ruling that prevents many districts from keeping school choice as they merge with other districts.

“We are writing regarding Act 46, and the confusion that has been created surrounding its implementation,” the letter states.

The letter’s 14 signatories—11 representatives and three senators, including local representatives Job Tate and Butch Shaw and senators Peg Flory and Brian Collamore—claim the Board’s decision, issued Sept. 15, violates the language and intent of Act 46. The decision said newly formed unified school districts cannot have both school choice and public schools at the same grade levels.

In the letter, the authors cite a section of the law that says all merger transitions involving tuitioning districts must preserve the tuitioning option if the district so chooses:

“Sec 4 (a) Tuition payment; protection. All governance transitions contemplated pursuant to this act shall preserve the ability of a district that, as of the effective date of this section, provides for the education of all resident students in one or more grades by paying tuition on the students’ behalf, to continue to provide education by paying tuition on behalf of all students in the grade or grades if it chooses to do so and shall not require the district to limit the options available to students if it ceases to exist as a discrete entity and realigns into a supervisory district or union school district.”

By pointing to language in Act 46 that says districts get to decide whether school choice continues or goes away, the signatories hope to pressure the board to change its decision.

The Board made its determination in response to supervisory union superintendents whose member districts wanted schools and school choice within a newly formed union. In the case of Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, three of five member towns have school choice for grades 9-12. Two of the five towns operate public schools at those grade levels.

The SBE ruled that school-choice districts have to surrender choice in such situations, arguing that since Vermont law prior to Act 46 didn’t allow choice and public schools to coexist at the same grade levels, the rule continues.

But critics of the ruling say Act 46 changed the former rule and allows choice and public schools to coexist at the same grade levels. The dispute has consequences for school-choice towns across Vermont that must merge with other districts under statewide consolidation.

Two attorneys, the House minority leader, the lieutenant governor, and others have denounced the Board this month. In addition, two Democrat representatives from school-choice districts told Vermont Watchdog they want to clarify Act 46 to ensure the choice option stays for merging districts.

The row is of immediate interest to towns like Elmore and Morristown, which are voting on a proposed merger Tuesday. If both towns vote to form a new unified school district, and the SBE ruling stands, Elmore will lose school choice for grades 7-12.

The letter closes by asking Holcombe and Morse “to clarify that all communities that currently enjoy school choice may maintain that school choice regardless of their merger decisions,” and to do so publicly by Nov. 13.

“I felt the need to say we’re not happy with it. A lot of the people who voted for Act 46 feel their intent is not being honored,” said Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, who represents the school-choice towns of Mendon and Chittenden.

Tate, who took the lead in drafting the letter, said he wanted to reach Holcombe and Morse ahead of Election Day on behalf of constituents who want to preserve school choice.

“People are confused. I can’t imagine the [confusion for] voters. Even legislators, we don’t know what’s going on, and these people are about to vote on a serious issue for their towns,” he said.

Bruce Parker is a reporter for Vermont Watchdog, bparker@watchdog.org

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