Town Meeting Day is the time when school budgets are debated and voted on.
But the resistance across Vermont to the forced mergers brought on by Act 46 means many votes will not take place in early March.
After the State Board of Education ordered some school districts to merge in November, organizational meetings were scheduled.
The state hoped that voters would elect a transitional board at these meetings, work on a budget, and make sure schools were ready to pay their bills when the new fiscal year starts July 1.
But, that’s not the way things have been working out at meetings across the state.
At the latest meeting this week for the Windham Southeast Unified Union School District, which includes the towns of Brattleboro, Guilford, Dummerston and Putney, opponents of Act 46 came out in force to vote to postpone the meeting before any decisions could be made about the newly merged board.
Similar meetings in six other newly merged school districts across the state were also postponed.
The new boards are supposed to be operational before July 1, but 34 school districts have sued the state, questioning the State Board of Education’s authority to force consolidation.
The school districts hope Franklin County Superior Court Judge Robert Mello will issue an injunction and put the forced mergers on hold until the case is resolved.
At the meeting in Brattleboro, Read Miller of Dummerston said it made sense to wait before voting on a merged budget.
“We have a rift. And there’s been a lot of hurt and a lot of pain going through this process,” Miller said. “And I suggest that if we allow ourselves to come together after that decision is made then we’re all working in the same direction."
The problem is, Town Meeting Day is almost here, and Franz Reichsman of Brattleboro, said voters deserve to know what they’ll be expected to pay for their school next year.
“We have to get down to the business of creating and then passing a budget, whether it be for the unified school district, if there’s no action in the courts or the legislature, or whether it be for individual school districts,” he said. “However that goes, I think we have to get started on it now.”
There are other complicating factors. Even within the merged districts, individual school boards are approaching Town Meeting Day with their own strategy.
In the Windham Southeast Unified Union School District, Dummerston prepared a budget for its own elementary school that will go before voters at town meeting.
But in Guilford, which is in the same merged district, the school board is waiting until either the courts or the legislature makes a decision. So Guilford residents will not vote on a school budget at all at town meeting.
Windham Southeast Superintendent Lyle Holiday said she wasn’t sure how the districts will move ahead
“I think we’ll have to get legal advice because I don’t know that we’ll be able to put together a merged budget by the deadlines,” said Holiday. “ So we’re on a very tight timeframe that I don’t know if we can meet all those deadlines.”
Holiday says all of this turmoil is already affecting business.
She said the district has been told not to hire any new staff, and there’s no way to issue next year’s teacher contracts until there’s a budget in place.