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After Months Of Fighting Act 46 Mergers, Towns Move Ahead With Board, Budget Votes

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Emily Murphy Kaur stands in front of the Brattleboro Municipal Building Tuesday after voting in a special election for the newly merged school board. Murphy Kaur was one of the candidates and won her seat on the 8-person board..

It’s been nothing but bad news for the school districts that were fighting forced mergers under the state’s controversial law, Act 46.Lawmakers failed to come up with a plan to delay the mergers, and the court battle, so far, hasn’t slowed the process.

So now voters across Vermont are electing school board members for the new districts, and approving budgets, as they race to meet the July 1 merger deadline.

The polls were open all day Tuesday in Putney as voters elected representatives to the newly merged eight-member Windham Southeast School Board.

Lucia Wilson said she always votes in local elections, and came out to do her civic duty, even though she’s dead set against merging the district.

“I’ve talked to a lot of local folks who have said, you know, we’re being dragged along,” Wilson said before filling out her ballot. “We’re being forced into things. And that doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Signs in front of Putney Town Hall direct voters to the special election held Tuesday. Turnout was very light across all four towns that voted.

The Act 46 school district merger process has been torturous in Putney.

The town overwhelmingly rejected the plan in a previous vote and the school board chair resigned as the district worked through the process.

Putney State Rep. Mike Mrowicki was one of the sponsors of the bill to delay forced mergers. But after all the drama and delays, the new district will become operational July 1.

About 30 towns are in the same boat as Putney- they failed to merge voluntarily, but then were ordered to do so by the Secretary of Education.

The big blow came in March when Superior Court Judge Robert Mello denied a request to delay the forced mergers while the court case proceeded.

So in Putney, and in the other three towns in the district, voters have been trying to accept the inevitable.

In Brattleboro, turnout was light for the special election. But Mary Casey said she wanted to take part in electing her town’s representatives on the new school board.

“I was pleased at the last meeting that the people running for the now merged board seemed to think that they could be devoted to making it work,” she said. “It didn’t seem as adversarial as it had in the past and there seemed to be a commitment to making it work. If this is what we need to do then we’ll do it as best we can.”

"The reality is that we will have to operate together. And so the hope is that we can heal these wounds and so I really hope that's the case and I hope to help build that trust and community." - Emily Murphy Kaur, new school board member.

Emily Murphy Kaur was elected to the new board Tuesday.

Even among the towns and school boards there was division. Some favored the merger, while others fought it to the end.

Now, Murphy Kaur says, it’s time to consider the students in the four towns as part of one district.

“The reality is that we will have to operate together,” Murphy Kaur said. “And so the hope is that we can heal these wounds and so I really hope that’s the case and I hope to help build that trust and community.”

The lawsuit in Franklin Superior Court isn’t over, and as long as the legislature’s in session there’s a chance  a delay could be adopted.

But as the votes here in Windham County, and across the state proceed, the final pieces of this very long, and sometimes contentious Act 46 process will mostly fall into place before July 1.


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