NORTH BENNINGTON >> The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee has decided to postpone their motion to dissolve.
North Bennington will also continue to try to work with the committee, at least pending an opinion from their lawyer, which representative Matthew Patterson said would come before the next SVSU meeting. The committee is also working on getting someone from the Agency of Education to advise them on certain questions they have regarding the 2015 education act. While members of the committee seemed more open to the idea of forming a single, consolidated district, several obstacles still remain, including how to maintain North Bennington's school choice status, and whether or not the new district's board would have proportional representation or not.
Some on the committee believed that the law requires proportional representation. "The one man, one vote issue was decided by the Supreme Court on Monday," said Bennington representative Ken Swierad. When questioned on the relevance of this by Pownal representative Jim O'Connor, Swierad responded, "It's always been like that, every state does it now. If you get a lawyer, just ask them, that's the way representation is. It's all proportional by population, that's how all representation is now.
"I'd like to stand in opposition to what Ken just said," replied O'Connor, "There's no stretch of the imagination where every government entity in every state and municipality has to follow this. One man one vote has nothing to do with school boards." In the case in question, Evenwel v. Abbott, the Supreme Court, according to the Associated Press, "rejected a challenge from Texas voters that also could have diluted the voting power of urban Democrats, to the benefit of rural Republicans. The case offered a test of the principle of 'one person, one vote,' the requirement laid out by the Supreme Court in 1964 that political districts be roughly equal in population. The issue here, though, was what population to consider: everyone or just eligible voters." The law refers to congressional districts, and it is not clear why this most recent decision would have any effect on school boards.
The Agency of Education in January gave an alternative to proportional districts, in their advisory document, "Board Membership; Nomination & Voting Process; Advisable Districts Clarification and Guidance," which is available on the agency's website. In that document, they list three acceptable governance structures for consolidated boards under Act 46. The first two are proportional based on population, the only difference being that one model allows towns to vote only for their representatives, while the second model allows at-large members. The third model, which they call the "hybrid model" is based off the structure used currently by the Mount Anthony Union district, in which representatives from towns are elected by citizens from all member districts. For example, currently, a resident of Bennington currently has a voice in the election of Pownal's MAU representative, etc. In this model, the agency specifically clarifies, "Apportionment does not have to be proportional to the town's population." The constitutionality of this model was determined in Barnes v. Mount Anthony Union High School District in 1975, according to the agency.
Dick Frantz, Woodford's representative on the board, said that despite his town's relatively tiny population compared to the other towns in the SU that, "We're not opposed to proportional representation." He said that he has never felt disrespected, or that other boards have tried to take advantage of Woodford's small size. "One of the sticking points has always been representation, and I don't think Woodford is opposed to that," he said.
The meeting included considerable discussion from both the community and board on what potential consolidated boards can look like. The full recording will be broadcast on CAT-TV and is available on their YouTube page.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.