On December 26, 2018

33 school districts file appeal against board of education

A group of Vermont school districts, community leaders, and citizens will filed an appeal Thursday, Dec. 20 against the State Board of Education, the Vermont Agency of Education, and the Secretary of Education. Attorneys for the appeal say that a preliminary injunction and a stay will also be filed imminently.

The appeal is being put forward by 31 school boards, seven select boards, one planning commission, and 15 taxpayers, parents and students. It challenges the Nov. 28, 2018 State Board of Education decision to forcibly merge 45 democratically elected school boards under Act 46.

In the final Order, the state board stated that “the Board has chosen to hew as closely to the intent of the Act as that authority will allow, creating preferred structures wherever possible.”  (Final Order at 6 (emphasis added).)  The Board’s position reveals a breathtaking misunderstanding of the law.  The Board’s mandate was not to realign districts wherever “possible,” but to do so only where it was deemed “necessary.”

The  appeal argues that the board’s action is unconstitutional, and “ignored the plain text” of education laws. The appeal states, “If upheld, the board’s ‘casual dismissal of statute’ will have lasting impacts for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come. It is already tearing communities apart and pitting towns against each other. It is harming our students, our schools, the very fabric of rural life, the democratic process, checks and balances, and the foundational notion that governance requires consent of the governed.”

Ines McGillion, one of the attorneys presenting the legal challenge, noted,“We hope the Vermont courts will recognize that plaintiffs are entitled to relief from the Agency’s and the Board’s breathtaking departure from longstanding statutory processes that require the consent of, and respect the wisdom of, our voters.”

This is the second legal challenge filed to date in response to the Act 46 forced mergers. On Dec. 13, the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union and the Stowe School District  filed suit.

Alternatives to merger were allowed under Act 46, the 2015 school merger. Dummerston School Board member Kristina Naylor noted, “Many dedicated board members and citizens worked on an Alternative Governance Structure to meet the Act 46 requirements, yet there was no evaluation of the ability of the AGS proposals to meet the goals as required by law.”

According to Carin Ewing Park, a member of the Barnard School Board, “Many districts turned down hefty financial incentives and committed themselves to the arduous Act 46 Section 9 process because they knew merger would undermine the ability of their districts to best serve their students and taxpayers.”

Westminster School Board member Rick Gordon said that their alternative governance structure proposal met all the goals of Act 46 and increased their collaboration and efficiency. “To have this plan rejected without even consideration by the State Board of Education, and then to be forced to merge with a district geographically removed and thus more inefficient and less transparent, is an affront to democracy and common sense.”

Plaintiffs are deeply concerned about the effects of forced mergers on students. Grafton School Board member Jack Bryar noted, “The AOE simply ignored half the law that allowed communities to create their own governance structures, and have instead created absurd, gerrymandered districts where school children cannot travel from end to end without driving miles into other school districts.”

The appellant/plaintiffs are:Athens School District; Barnard School District; Barnard Select Board; Bellows Falls Union High School; Berlin School District; Brighton School District; Brownington Select Board; Calais School District; Calais Select Board; Charleston School District; Coventry School District; Craftsbury School District; Dummerston School District; Franklin School District; Franklin Select Board; Glover School District; Grafton School District; Greensboro School District; Greensboro Select Board; Highgate School District;  Irasburg Planning Commission; Irasburg School District; Irasburg Select Board; Jay School District; Lakeview Union School District; Lowell School District; Montgomery School District; Montgomery Select Board; Newbury School District;  Newport Town School District; Richford School District;  Sheldon School District;  Stannard School District;  Troy School District; Westfield School District; Westminster School District; Windham School District; Worcester School District.

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