BERLIN — The Washington Central Unified Union School District is at least temporarily on hold based on an agreement reached by lawyers on both sides of one of two Act 46-related lawsuits Monday afternoon.
The agreement affects the 31 school districts that are parties to the second of two lawsuits filed in the wake of the state Board of Education’s recent order compelling several school district mergers around the state.
One of those forced mergers was in the five-town, six-school Washington Central Supervisory Union, where four school boards voted to join the lawsuit that was filed late last month in Washington Superior Court.
Lawyers for the school districts have sought an injunction barring implementation of the merger until after the case is resolved. However, the two sides have jointly requested an extension giving the state until the end of the month to file its response and delaying until February already warned organizational meetings in districts that were ordered to merge.
Washington Central Superintendent Bill Kimball delivered that news to a committee that officially met for the first time Monday night and promptly postponed plans to hold a 6 p.m. public hearing in the auditorium at U-32 Middle and High School on Wednesday. The focus of that hearing would have been potential amendments to articles of agreement that would otherwise be imposed on the new district.
Kimball said next Monday’s organizational meeting for the merged district at U-32 is also off and will be re-warned for mid-February in keeping with the scheduling agreement.
Though at least one of the committee’s members was skeptical, Kimball said the state-proposed amendments to articles of agreement could wait until after the transitional board of the merged district is seated and there was no longer a rush to get them warned and approved by the end of February.
That state-imposed deadline was among the reasons some had started to question the value of pursing any amendments to default articles of agreement that would otherwise be imposed. It’s a question the committee is expected to revisit before it wraps up work, but some said they hoped the brief reprieve would allow for a more thorough and thoughtful discussion.
With key issues unresolved and a couple of legal questions pending, the committee agreed proceeding with Wednesday night’s public hearing would be a waste of time.
Calais School Director Dorothy Naylor said absent a concrete proposal that could be reviewed in advance, inviting residents to weigh in on questions the committee hadn’t resolved was pointless.
“I’m not comfortable with that,” she said.
Some on the committee, which had met informally heading into Monday’s session, have pressed for a simple slate of amendments about which there is broad agreement.
Others have argued those modest adjustments aren’t worth the trouble of scheduling special elections in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, and are wary of presenting major changes about which there is significant disagreement.
Still, some — Middlesex School Board Chairman Chris McVeigh and Naylor among them — have pressed for changes that would handcuff a yet-to-be-elected school board when it comes to issues like school choice and school closure.
Both were discussed without resolution Monday night.
“This is the same conversation we’ve been having for three-and-a-half years,” said Worcester School Director Matthew DeGroot, who noted the split wasn’t surprising.
The safeguard proposed by McVeigh would prevent closing any of the district’s schools without the approval of 65 percent of voters who cast ballots on the question.
“It (closing a school) is a serious decision,” McVeigh said, defending his proposal.
Calais resident Scott Bassage urged the committee to include what would amount to a host-town veto.
Bassage argued voters in the community where a school could be closed should have the final say on that decision.
Scott Thompson, who represents Calais on the U-32 board, described Bassage’s proposal as a “crucial protection,” but said he believed a district-wide vote was also warranted.
Others, like DeGroot, worried both proposals were problematic and the topic required significant additional discussion.
“We’re not going to be persuading people tonight to change their minds,” he said.
Among the other substantive changes discussed by the committee Monday night included a new proposal to expand the initial 10-member board of the new district to 15 members — three from each community who are all elected at large.
The change was suggested by Chris Winters, chairman of the Berlin School Board, who said he had spoken to those who found the larger board more appealing than the 11-member version that had been previously discussed. A 15-member board would guarantee each town three seats.
The committee was receptive to the proposed change, which would go into effect after the district’s first year of operation.
The committee plans to meet Friday morning and Winters said it still needed to revisit the question of whether to recommend a public vote before deciding when to reschedule the public hearing.
Kimball suggested the hearing be scheduled sometime between Jan. 28 and Feb. 8.