House lawmakers have decided that some Vermont school districts need more time to comply with a merger mandate, but they’ve left a fast-approaching deadline in place for others.
A 2015 law gives school districts until July of this year to merge into larger governance entities. But about 50 Vermont school districts have struggled to make the transition.
On Thursday afternoon, House lawmakers granted a yearlong reprieve to about half of them.
Cornwall Rep. Peter Conlon, the ranking member of the House Committee on Education, said the amendment approved Thursday keeps the deadline in place for towns that have put together merger plans, but had them rejected by local voters.
“And while they were not able to get their articles of agreement approved by the voters, they were still well on the path to meeting the July 1, 2019 deadline,” Conlon said Thursday.
For towns that haven’t yet put together a merger plan for voters to weigh in on, the amendment postpones the merger deadline by one year.
“This was essentially a pragmatic decision,” Conlon said. “No matter your opinion of how these districts got to where they are, the fact is, is that meeting that July 1, 2019 deadline will be very difficult.”
More From The Vermont Legislature: See the list of which districts would fall under which deadlines, per the draft proposal.
The amendment passed by a wide margin Thursday: 134-10. But critics, like Enosburg Rep. Felisha Leffler, said it does little to address the plight of districts that now have fewer than five months to orchestrate a successful merger.
“And [it] takes punitive action upon the towns and voters that expressed with their votes — sometimes unanimously and repetitively — that the merger plan presented to them was not acceptable,” Leffler said.
Lawmakers in Leffler’s camp gained a high-profile ally this week, when Gov. Phil Scott said he now supports postponing the deadline for all unmerged districts.
“I do think that they need a little bit more time,” Scott said Wednesday. “I don’t know if it’s a year. I don’t know if it’s six months. But I think it’s appropriate for those who are being forced at this point in time to give extra additional time for them to contemplate the future.”
However, whether any districts definitely get a delay is still up in the air. The language passed by the House Thursday still needs approval in Senate, where several key lawmakers have expressed skepticism over the proposal.
And the courts could have the ultimate say over the fate of the unmerged districts. About 30 districts filed suit late last year, challenging the state’s authority to force them to merge. That case is still pending.