Who Gets The Forest? Putney School Assesses What To Do Ahead Of Possible Act 46 Merger

Oct 23, 2017

In some Vermont school districts, the issues of assets and debt are complicating their Act 46 merger plans. In Putney, voters will weigh in on what to do with the Putney Central School Forest about a week before the district's Act 46 vote.

When school districts consolidate under Act 46, all of the assets and debts come under control of the larger, newly merged district. That means all of the buildings, buses and sports equipment become the property of the new district. And for some school districts that's been a sticking point, as school boards and voters try to move their consolidation plans forward.

In Putney, the pre-K through eighth grade school owns a 164-acre forest. If the Act 46 plan is approved, the forest would be folded into the newly merged district.

Putney Central School principal Herve Pelletier says the school is hoping Putney residents support the idea of turning the forest over to the town to protect it from becoming part of the new school district.

"I think that there's no question that the school forest is a central part of the school's identity," Pelletier says. "With Act 46 on the horizon and the distinct possibility of a merger of some sort taking place, the board said, 'You know, we don't want the school forest to become part of the broader property holdings of whatever district may come as a result of the Act 46 merger.'"

Anna Duich, left, and Avi Moses, both eighth graders at Putney Central School, hold puppets they have made for a storytelling project that was held in the school's forest.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Putney Central School board member Emily Pals says the school wants to eventually move ownership of the forest to a new nonprofit that can protect the property in perpetuity.

But it will take some time to establish a new nonprofit group to manage the forest, so Pals says the board wants to transfer ownership to the town, to hold it for a while.

Pals says if the merger plan is approved and the new district takes over ownership of the forest, that process will get much more complicated.

"If the property gets consolidated into the unified district then it would be under the purview of a unified board, in which there would be one Putney representative. ... But their [that board's] charge is not related to our school forest mission," Pals says.

The Act 46 vote in Putney — and in the other districts in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union — is Nov. 7. Prior to that, on Nov. 2, is when the town will decide if it wants to take over the school forest.

And Putney isn't the only school district that's trying to come up with creative solutions to sticky issues around assets and debt within their Act 46 plans.

"With Act 46 on the horizon and the distinct possibility of a merger of some sort taking place, the board said, 'You know, we don't want the school forest to become part of the broader property holdings of whatever district may come as a result of the Act 46 merger.'" — Herve Pelletier, Putney Central School principal

In the Washington Central Supervisory Union, near Montpelier, the merger plan stalled largely because some of the districts didn't want to take on the large debt of the other districts.

And in Newbury, where the elementary school owns the village common, the school board is struggling to figure out a way to transfer ownership of the property to the town. Newbury School Board member Danielle Corti says the issue has become very complicated.

The school building is on the common, so if the town takes it over, there will have to be a land rental agreement worked out. And the school uses the town hall as a gym, which Corti says further complicates a potential land-building arrangement.

"The common is really considered sort of the gem of our town," says Corti. "And so our issue with Act 46 is that yes, we would have to transfer ownership back to the town in order for us to maintain ownership of that and not lose it to a unified school district."

Corti says the town would reject any Act 46 plan that puts ownership of the village common into a merged school district.