MONTPELIER — Confronted with competing amendments that could alter a key deadline in the state’s school district consolidation law, House lawmakers dispensed with one of them before running out of time Wednesday.
Following a roll call vote that capped a debate that spanned more than 90 minutes, lawmakers narrowly rejected an amendment that would have extended the July 1 deadline for all mergers forced under Act 46 by one year. The amendment proposed by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, failed, 69-74.
The debate and the ensuing decision exposed the divide in the chamber with respect to the requested extension, while leaving the fate of the underlying bill and a separate amendment — one that enjoyed the support of the House Education Committee — up in the air.
Scheuermann’s amendment was rejected by the education committee by a vote of 7-4 last week and the bill she sponsored was reported out of committee with a negative recommendation as part of an odd process during which House leadership promised her a floor vote in exchange for withdrawing an amendment she tacked on to the budget adjustment act.
Scheuermann got that vote Wednesday and while she came close to amassing the votes needed to advance what has been described as a “blanket delay” in the July 1 deadline, her effort fell short.
A competing amendment was embraced as a compromise by a committee that voted, 7-4, to forward it with a favorable recommendation. That amendment would offer an extension to some districts that were ordered to merge under Act 46 — Scheuermann’s included — but not others. That could prompt opposition from some members of a tri-partisan coalition that sought the blanket delay, while others who voiced support for a more nuanced solution back the committee’s plan.
That question was supposed to be answered Wednesday, but House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said that probably wasn’t possible.
With a long line already forming downstairs for a public hearing on a controversial bill that would guarantee the right to abortion in Vermont, Johnson said the House chamber had to be cleared and wouldn’t be available until later in the evening.
Though coming back at 7:30 p.m. was an option, Johnson said it wasn’t optimal and suggested lawmakers defer the debate on the committee’s amendment for a day and adjourn for the night.
On that, almost all of them agreed — a stark contrast to the debate and vote that had just concluded.
While some questioned whether the Legislature should make any adjustments to a law while legal challenges are pending, Johnson concluded tinkering with the deadline did not stray into the constitutional and procedural questions the court has been asked to resolve.
Scheuermann said those lawsuits — including one challenging the forced merger of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts — needed time to play out, but the requested extension was designed to give districts ordered to merge late last year by the state Board of Education time to prepare for that transition.
“This bill does not do anything to negate or change Act 46 in any substantive policy way,” she said, describing the requested extension as an accommodation for districts that aren’t remotely ready to begin operations on July 1.
“To do this right this process will take significant time,” said Scheuermann, who bristled at the suggestion many districts ignored the looming deadline by pursuing a provision of the law that could have allowed them to maintain their current governance structures.
Speaking on behalf of the education committee, Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, recounted the panel’s opposition to Scheuermann’s amendment and the underlying bill.
“The committee recommends this bill does not pass,” he said, suggesting the proposal was “problematic” and could derail mergers in districts capable of meeting the deadline that has been on the books since Act 46 was passed in 2015.
Conlon said the committee’s amendment sought to keep those efforts on track, while proposing extensions in districts where no formal merger proposal was ever presented to voters.
Rep. Tommy Walz, D-Barre, said the fragile alliance being forged between Barre and Barre Town would be undercut if the goal posts were suddenly moved and a one-year delay was an option.
“For some school districts passing this amendment would be a really bad idea,” he said.
Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, agreed, suggesting the reasons for passing Act 46 have not changed and expressing concern the requested extension would “send the wrong signal” and fuel, or in some case re-fuel, divisiveness that would be counter-productive.
Donovan was among those who hinted they might be more amenable to the alternative amendment recommended by the committee.
“Progress should not be halted for those who can move forward on the original act 46 timeline,” she said.
Others, like Rep Charles Conquest, D-Wells River, openly wondered whether the time frame written into the law nearly four years ago was ever realistic.
In retrospect, Conquest said expecting districts merged against their will to be ready to begin operations in seven short months was overly optimistic.
“I think we got a lot of things right in Act 46,” he said. “We ought to admit we got that part of it wrong.”
Three pending lawsuits challenging various aspects of Act 46 were cited by those on both sides of the issue.
Some, like Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said she seriously questioned whether the Legislature should make any adjustments to the law with court cases pending, while others, like Rep. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, said the requested delay could buy time to get a better read from the court.
“Its one compelling reason to slow down,” he said.
The back and forth highlighted the House was clearly divided on the proposal and the roll call vote was too close to call from start to finish.
Though Scheuermann’s amendment failed by five votes, several hinted the committee’s alternative might be preferable. That amendment is expected to be debated and voted on Thursday.