BARRE — Secretary of Education Daniel French has issued a procrastinate-at-your-peril warning to voters in school districts that were ordered to merge under Act 46 but have thus far dragged their feet.
Citing Judge Robert Mello’s recent denial of a preliminary injunction requested on behalf of the 33 school districts that sued the state over Act 46, French issued a memorandum providing time-sensitive guidance with respect to those state-ordered mergers.
The decision means unification will continue, lawsuits or not, French wrote, noting districts that claim they don’t have time are mistaken.
“At this time, there are enough days remaining for each newly formed union school district to take all steps legally required to become operational on July 1,” he wrote.
French acknowledged the Vermont Legislature is considering a bill to grant a one-year extension to most of the affected districts. He stressed the current law reflects the July 1 deadline, and ignoring it “will result in serious consequences for students and staff.”
The House-passed bill that would allow for an extension is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate Education Committee when it meets Tuesday.
One feature of that bill would resolve a potential problem French flagged in his memo: School districts without voter-approved budgets by July 1 can borrow 87 percent of their last-passed budgets, but there is no apples-to-apples comparison for merged districts. French indicated he was confident the Legislature would provide clarity on that issue.
That said, French noted no mechanism exists for districts that were ordered to merge to meet their financial obligations absent voter-approved budgets. He urged school officials to “be aware of the importance of acting in a timely manner to avoid disruption of services to students.”
French noted voters in several merged districts adjourned or continued organizational meetings without completing the warned business, including whether to authorize the use of Australian ballot for electing board members.
Several of those meetings will reconvene this month, and two have been warned to reconvene next month.
According to French, postponing action again could force transitional boards to consider unilaterally warning special elections that, in the absence of a voter-approved decision to use Australian ballot, would require the nomination and election of school board members on the floor of an open district meeting.
“The voters will lose the opportunity to decide whether to use Australian ballot, and the transitional board may determine it is most prudent to move forward with an election from the floor for the initial board,” he wrote.
Based on the meeting schedule, elections could be held as early as April 23 in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union and as late as May 21 in the Washington Central and Windham Northeast supervisory unions, as well as the two-town merger involving Enosburg and Richford. Budget votes could be scheduled as early as May 27 and as late as June 21 if voters are cooperative.
If not, the transitional boards may need to warn an election for the initial board and warn a budget for the first year of operations, French wrote.
French indicated if districts continue to resist, the state is prepared to intercede.
“The agency will take every action legally available to bring the district into compliance to ensure students are provided access to substantially equal educational opportunities,” he wrote.