After a series of meetings to hear testimony from Vermonters, the final decisions about forcing mergers on school districts throughout the state now lie with the State Board of Education.
The board was in Chester on Wednesday for its third and final Act 46 regional meeting. Prior to that meeting, the board had met in Newark, in the Northeast Kingdom, in July and then in Montpelier in August.
The meetings were called to hear directly from school districts, and community members, who wanted to weigh in on the statewide school district merger plan that was released by the Vermont Agency of Education back in June.
More from VPR — Vermonters React To Education Agency's Statewide Merger Proposal, Required By Act 46 [June 5]
Now the State Board of Education has to take all the information it gathered at these meetings and write a statewide plan which will address which districts will be forced to merge.
State Board of Education Chairwoman Krista Huling said the board has a very tight schedule to follow.
“When the Legislature gave us this job, they said the report came out in June that had to be done Nov. 30,” said Huling. “We only meet once a month and to adjust to that, the State Board has already added three additional meetings, and we are working on a short timeline that we did not create.”
The Vermont Secretary of Education issued a draft statewide plan on June 1, which made recommendations about the school districts around Vermont that did not voluntarily merge under Act 46.
For some school districts merging does not make sense, and the statewide plan recognized that.
But the plan did recommend 18 new school districts, representing 43 different alternative governance plans from districts that want to remain independent.
There was some support for forcing merger plans among those who took part in the discussion in Chester on Wednesday. But most of the people who spoke opposed merging and strongly rejected the state’s plan to force districts into consolidation against the wishes of voters.
“We understood when we passed the law, that the local vote, in regard to any proposed governance merger, was designed to guarantee that any change in governance structure would have to be acceptable to the voters in those districts affected,” Windham County Sen. Becca Balint said. “I just urge you to remember what the intent was, and what we were trying to achieve because we all want equity for our children.”
In Putney, voters overwhelmingly rejected a merger plan, but members of the school board support consolidation. Putney School Board member Alice Laughlin highlighted the challenge facing the State Board of Education:
“Everyone wants to maintain the school, in the town — it's the hub of the cultural life of the town,” Laughlin said. “What we disagree on is, how to do that.”
The State Board of Education says it will have a draft plan before the end of October, and the final plan is due Nov. 30.
The Regional Educational Television Network provided audio for this report.