House lawmakers appear poised to grant a yearlong reprieve to about half of the Vermont school districts that face a fast-approaching deadline for complying with a controversial school governance mandate.
Legislation passed in 2015 gave school districts until July of this year to merge into larger governance entities. Supporters of the law, called Act 46, said district consolidation would streamline operations, reduce costs and increase educational opportunities for students.
While the majority of districts in Vermont have since complied with the mandate, about 50 districts have yet to complete their mergers.
House lawmakers will vote Thursday on legislation that would postpone the Act 46 deadline by one year for about half those districts. For the remainder, the July 1, 2019, deadline would remain in place.
More From The Vermont Legislature: See the list of which districts would fall under which deadlines, per this proposal.
Shelburne Rep. Kate Webb, who chairs the House Committee on Education, said the proposal attempts to acknowledge competing dynamics in various districts.
“We looked at trying to differentiate those communities that may well be ready to go, to merge by July 2019, and those that truly do need more time,” Webb said. “The committee heard from communities, school board members, superintendents that thought a delay would be helpful. We also heard from those that said a delay would not be helpful, that it would actually be a disruption on an ability to move forward toward implementing a merger.”
The districts being held to the original Act 46 deadline are those that, in Webb’s view at least, are further along in the merger process. They include districts that developed a merger proposal, but had it shot down by local voters.
“They had made a plan, they had articles of agreement, and they took this to the voters, however the voters rejected it,” Webb said. “They’ve taken the process pretty far.”
For the two dozen or so districts that have not put a merger proposal before the local electorate, the bill would provide another year to prepare.
“Those [districts] are ones who probably hadn’t gone as deeply into the [merger] process as others,” Webb said.
Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann has been leading the push for a blanket delay of the Act 46 deadline. While her district is among those that would get a yearlong reprieve under the bill that’s up for a vote Thursday, Scheuermann said it’s unfair for lawmakers to “pick winners and losers.”
Scheuermann offered an amendment on the House floor Wednesday that would have let local school districts decide for themselves whether they wanted to avail themselves of a yearlong delay.
“Bring it to the locals. Make sure that they decide whether or not they want to merge immediately, if they can, or delay for one year,” Scheuermann said. “It doesn’t impact the content and the substance of Act 46 and what’s happening. It just allows the locals to have more time to prepare for this.”
Scheuermann’s amendment failed by a count of 69-74.
The debate over the yearlong delay comes on the heels of a lawsuit in which more than 30 districts are challenging the state’s authority to force them to merge. Proponents of postponing the mandate say it’s unfair to keep the 2019 deadline in place while that case is pending.
However, the legislation expected to pass Thursday would not guarantee that affected districts will actually get the yearlong delay. The measure still needs support from the Senate, where some lawmakers have voiced skepticism over the merits of postponing the Act 46 mandate.
Lawmakers expect to see key developments in the Act 46 court case by mid-February, and Senate officials say it’s unlikely the Senate will take up the merger-delay legislation until the judge in that case issues his latest findings.
Proponents of the delay have gained a high-profile ally in recent days: Gov. Phil Scott now says he thinks lawmakers should grant the delay to districts that haven’t been able to move forward with mergers up until this point.
“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.”