MONTPELIER — The chairman of the Senate Education Committee has added a fresh wrinkle to the debate over extensions to state-ordered school district mergers by floating a proposal that would put the power to buy time in the hands of yet-to-be-elected school boards.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, unveiled a proposal that would extend the deadline, with conditions, by one year, or to July 1, 2020.
Baruth characterized his amendment as a compromise designed to forge consensus on a committee he acknowledged was divided on the issue.
According to Baruth, two of the committee’s six members were opposed to extending the July 1 deadline for any of the dozens of districts that were ordered to merge by the state Board of Education last November, and two others supported “no strings attached” extensions for all.
“There is a reasonable middle ground,” said Baruth, who expressed hope his proposal could unanimously clear the committee this week and enjoy broad support in the Senate.
That remains to be seen, but Baruth believes his plan, which would necessarily nudge districts interested an extension down the path toward a merger, was superior to House-passed legislation that offered extensions to some districts, but not others.
The House bill essentially provided for one-year extensions in districts that never presented merger proposals to voters, while forcing districts that floated — in some cases repeatedly — mergers that were rejected to stick to the July 1 deadline.
“That never made a lot of sense to me,” said Baruth, who sought without success to find a better way to determine which districts should be eligible for extensions.
Baruth’s answer would allow all other districts to opt for extra time, but they would have to take steps most have thus far resisted.
According to Baruth’s amendment, July 1, 2019 will remain the operational date for merged districts unless the elected boards for those districts vote to postpone the operational date of the merger to July 1, 2020.
Doing that will require electing boards entitled to make that decision. Most districts that were ordered to merge recently adjourned the organizational meetings for their merged districts without conducting any of the warned business.
The two-town, three-school Barre Supervisory Union is an exception, and so is a separate merger involving the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts. Both of those merged districts are slated to elect new school boards on April 9.
Most of the other districts in the state haven’t got nearly that far. On the heels of Education Secretary Daniel French’s admonition that further delay was not without risk, Baruth’s bill would up the ante.
“In order to get the delay people have to demonstrate a willingness to move down the (merger) path so that we don’t wind up in this position next year,” he said.
Baruth applauded the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts for pursuing a “responsible two-track process.” Both school districts separately warned school budgets that were approved by voters on Town Meeting Day and are poised to elect a school board for the merged district on April 9 and to vote on a consolidated school budget on May 28. They are also plaintiffs in one of three pending lawsuits challenging Act 46 and positioned to take full advantage of the extension proposed by Baruth.
“The idea is to get all districts to the place that you’re at,” Baruth told Cara Zimmerman, chairwoman of the Stowe School Board and of the transitional board for the merged district.
Zimmerman told the committee those districts stand firmly behind their rejected proposal to remain autonomous and are hopeful the state board’s decision would be overturned. However, she stressed the need for time to prepare for an orderly and informed transition to a single pre-K-12 district in the event the merger stands.
“A year gives us a chance to get community buy-in,” she said.
Committee members, who will take testimony on Baruth’s bill this week, didn’t have a lot to say about the proposal, which includes a carrot for some districts to meet the July 1 deadline. Districts eligible for small schools grants would retain them going forward.
Baruth opened Tuesday’s meeting by noting the “sweeping” nature of Judge Robert Mello’s recent denial of a preliminary injunction requested in one of the three pending lawsuits.
“(Mello) went out of his way to speak to the merits of all of the arguments outstanding and, one by one, it seemed to me, he knocked the bottom out of those arguments,” Baruth said, adding, “We have been waiting for guidance from the court and he gave us quite a lot of guidance.
“If you read the decision … it’s difficult to imagine he would rule for the plaintiffs,” he continued.