Westminster, other districts grapple with Act 46 fallout

Windham County State Representative Michael Mrowicki

An agreement was reached between the state and lawsuit plaintiffs to give the issue more time.

By JEFF EPSTEIN

vtreporter@eagletimes.com

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WESTMINSTER, Vt. — School officials here confirm that the organizational meeting of the new Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District is being delayed for at least five weeks from now, after an agreement was reached between the state and the lawsuit plaintiffs to give the issue more time to be resolved.

The new transition board comprising Westminster, Athens and Grafton was scheduled to have an organizational meeting on Jan. 29. But the Agency of Education will not force school districts to follow the original schedule while the lawsuits proceed. 

Margaret Maclean, one of the attorneys representing the school districts being forced to merge under Act 46, told the plaintiffs Monday that an agreement had been reached with the state for a five-week stay, and all organizational meetings are cancelled until after Feb. 15.

Chris Pratt, the superintendent of the current Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, confirmed Tuesday its Jan. 29 meeting was cancelled.

The five week delay is "a step in the right direction,” said WNESU chair David Clark. “I'd like to see a longer delay."

Waivers for Teachout

Meanwhile, the Westminster school board passed a resolution Tuesday waiving any objection to Washington County Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout hearing the lawsuit, according to Clark. (Teachout’s daughter Woden Teachout is a current member of the Middlesex School Board, one of the plaintiffs.)

Similar resolutions are expected to be passed tonight by the school boards in Athens and Grafton. The board of the Bellows Falls Union High School District plans to meet Friday to authorize its waiver. (Although Bellows Falls Union High School is not an elementary school, it is one of the plaintiffs, as it receives students from Westminster, Athens and Grafton.)

Budgets

One practical benefit of the implementation delay is that it allows school districts to concentrate on their 2019-20 budget processes, which are continuing even in districts that would disappear after a new compulsory district takes over. On the other hand, under the Act 46 process, budgets for the new union districts are also supposed to be created, but given the implementation delay, that is now extremely difficult to get done in time for town meetings, said Clark.

Speaking just as an observer of the individual school districts, “I do not have a sense of any enthusiasm to create [new budgets],” Clark said. “I do not anticipate that there will be any planning done for the possibility of creating a budget for a merged Athens-Grafton-Westminster district.”

Legislative attack

With the state legislature now in session, another front in the fight of these districts against the consequences of Act 46 has opened. State Rep. Michael Mrowicki (Windham-4, including Westminster) says he plans to submit legislation addressing what he sees as deficiencies with Act 46.

The legislation will have three key points, he said: 

First, the bill would require the state to honor previous votes taken on district mergers. For districts that previously voted down a school district consolidation, such a requirement could effectively nullify the forced merger.

Second, Act 46 has as part of its declared purpose building more equity across town lines. The bill would have some provision to enforce that, presumably by making the state board of education defend its assumption of equity in a consolidated district.

Third, the bill would push back the implementation of all forced mergers by at least one year, to allow legal challenges to play themselves out.

At least three other legislators are considering similar bills, and the four legislators will meet this week as an ad-hoc committee to coordinate them, Mrowicki said. 

Mrowicki’s bill will probably be submitted in the House of Representatives “in a couple of weeks,” he said.

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