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State Board Allows Act 46 Breakup, And Other School Districts Could Follow

A school building
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR File
The State Board of Education has approved the dissolution of the Southern Valley Unified Union School District between Halifax and Readsboro.

For the first time, two towns that merged their school districts under Act 46 have broken up. The State Board of Education this week allowed the southern Vermont towns of Halifax and Readsboro to go their separate ways just a few years after they merged their schools.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with fellow reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So remind us briefly what the intent was of Act 46?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: So Act 46, it passed in 2015. And it was a way to address Vermont's declining student counts. The law was set up in phases so that during the first phase, school
districts that voluntarily wanted to merge were encouraged to do so, and they received tax breaks and grants to do that.

During the second part, a lot of districts that were reluctant to do it voted to merge because the state said they might be forced to do it. This is what Halifax and Readsboro did. A lot of towns said, "We're going to go ahead and merge, even though we're not really excited about it, because we don’t want the state to force it."

And then there was a third set of schools that voted down the merger. And in the end, the state did force those school districts to merge.

So then this week, the State Board of Education allowed Halifax and Readsboro to split up. And as you said, they were one of these districts that merged but were sort of reluctant to do so. So why did they choose to split so quickly?

Well, Readsboro and Halifax are two very small towns with very small schools, and in a lot of ways Act 46 was written expressly to deal with schools like this. There's 56 kids in Readsboro. There are 74 in Halifax. On a map, Halifax and Readsboro are neighbors, but there's a windy mountain road between the two towns.

At [Wednesday’s] State Board of Education meeting, Homer Sumner, he's from Halifax, he said they tried comingling the middle school, but it didn't work out.

“It was a nightmare, to hire a bus, it was $90,000, so we paid parents in lieu of transportation," Sumner said. "And the town wasn't happy. The parents weren't happy. It worked well educationally, but it was a nightmare geographically.”

There's no animosity or bad feelings. But the board just felt it wasn't worth all the hassle. So each town held a vote. Both towns overwhelmingly said that they wanted to break up the district.

More from VPR: New Year, New Districts — But Act 46 Conversations Continue Around Vermont

So this week, the State Board of Education went along with those votes and said it was OK for them to do this. So why were they OK with Halifax and Readsboro dissolving their district?

Well, this is where it gets really interesting. There is a state law, and it goes back to the late '60s, and it was written to acknowledge the fact that sometimes districts have to break up for whatever reason. And the law says that if a town votes, and if there's a school in that town for the kids to go to, then the State Board has to approve the breakup. And there was a lot of frustration on the State Board’s part, because after all this work and all the controversy around Act 46, that a district could break up so easily.

This is what board member Bill Mathis said: “We went through all this trouble on Act 46 to get economies of scale and get it to work. And this seems to be working in the opposite direction.”

So does this set a precedent then for other districts that are unhappy with their mergers to split up?

Yeah, it does. That's what a lot of people are saying. Now, to be clear, Act 46 is working for a lot of districts, but there are districts that are really struggling with this. They're struggling with proposed school closures and construction projects.

I spoke with Margaret McClain — she's a longtime critic of the law. And she said a lot of people were waiting to see how things went with Halifax and Readsboro:

“Petitions are being signed, probably as we speak. Yes, unless there's a change in the Legislature, you will see a dissolution of many merged districts.”

In the bigger picture, could this unravel a lot of the work that's been done over the last few years since Act 46 passed?

Well, it could Henry. We’re going to have to see how it unfolds. The Legislature is going to be coming back in January. And whether or not there's appetite to take Act 46 up again remains to be seen.

If towns move ahead and get these votes done and the districts do break up, then the State Board’s hands are tied. And they're going to have to approve these district breakups unless the Legislature takes action and rewrites the law somehow. So we're going to have to see how this all plays out.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporters Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp and Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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