Lawmakers Seek Extension Of School Merger Deadline, Citing Legal Challenges

Jan 17, 2019

A tri-partisan group of lawmakers want to postpone a legal deadline that will otherwise force Vermont school districts into involuntary mergers by July 1.

A 2015 law, called Act 46, requires many school districts in the state to merge into larger governance entities. More than 30 districts, however, are now challenging the state law that mandates those mergers.

Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann said Thursday it would be irresponsible to move forward with involuntary mergers while those suits are pending.

“Because it will be virtually impossible, if the plaintiffs are successful in their suit, it will be virtually impossible to unravel those merged districts once they’re merged,” Scheuermann said.

Scheuermann and about two dozen other legislators held a Statehouse press conference to unveil two new pieces of Act 46 legislation. One bill would postpone the merger deadline for a year, to July 1 2020. The other would create a moratorium on forced mergers until the courts adjudicate the legal challenges filed by school districts.

Putney Rep. Michael Mrowicki says a proposed merger in his district has riven the community.

“There’s no easy solutions, and it’s going to take time,” Mrowicki said. “And that’s what we’re asking for - we’re asking for more time.”

Not everyone in Montpelier is ready to take their foot off on the merger gas pedal. Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth said he’s confident that courts will eventually dismiss the legal challenges filed by districts.

Baruth said he recently met with members of a school board that, faced with the looming Act 46 mandate, reluctantly decided to put a merger plan before voters. Voters later approved that proposal.

“And their number one message to us, the Legislature, was … we don’t want to see other communities let out of that responsibility because, A, we had to do it and, B, it was beneficial, and we believe it will be for them as well,” Baruth said.

The lawmakers asking for the Act 46 extension are getting at least some traction in Montpelier. House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski said the House Education Committee will, at minimum, hold hearings on the proposed legislation.

“It’s important to get all the information to know the pros and cons, and if there are any unintended consequences, and so that’s why I think it’s important our policy committee take this up,” Krowinski said.

Gov. Phil Scott says he thinks lawmakers should give strong consideration to postponing the merger deadline by one year.

This post was edited at 6:05 p.m. to correct a sentence that misstated the circumstances under which one school district moved ahead with  merger