NORTH BENNINGTON >> Act 46 talks are progressing in North Bennington, including discussions with Shaftsbury about merging to form a choice district.
Bruce Lierman, a former North Bennington school board member and current chairman of the district's ad hoc Act 46 study committee, gave a report to the North Bennington Prudential Committee at its regular June meeting on Wednesday.
"We've met with a group in Shaftsbury," said Lierman, "a group of citizens who are interested in the possibility of merging the North Bennington and Shaftsbury districts. It's a small group right now. They're trying to assess whether there's sufficient support for this idea in Shaftsbury to go forward with it... We told them, as far as we're concerned, it's absolutely worth exploring, and that there was no particular resistance against this idea. In fact, we thought it might be an excellent way to combine our interest and solve some of the issues they feel they are having with their elementary school. Of course, if we were to make such a combination, it would be as a choice district, so that would give us a more substantial number of students to be considered as students who would be tuitioned.
Lierman said former Shaftsbury school board member Larry Johnson is spearheading that initiative, and is currently gauging the level of support for the idea from other members of the community. He added that he was unsure of the timeline Johnson was operating under, and how the plan would fit in with the work of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee.
There are also questions, said Lierman, that his committee has about the procedure under which the SVSU committee was formed. "There are implications to whether this is a formal study committee, or whether it is an exploratory committee," he said, "and there are implications on our ability to exit that committee based on what the decision is there. Personally, I don't see how this could presently be construed as a formal study committee." He said he was seeking an informal legal opinion on the situation, and will seek clarification from SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen.
This discussion comes after controversy in Vernon related to a similar issue in May. Vernon wished to withdraw from the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 study committee, but was told by Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe that the school district had no legal right to do so. "All voluntary mergers within the Act 46 framework are governed by processes established in statute nearly 50 years ago and that remain unchanged by Act 46," Holcombe was quoted in the Brattleboro Reformer as saying, "Nothing in existing law authorizes or contemplates withdrawal of an individual district once it has become a formal member of a study committee and the district's representative members have been appointed. In fact, if a school board had this authority, then even if a district joined a study committee upon petition of 5 percent of the voters (because the school board initially voted against participation), nothing would prevent the school board from subsequently subverting the voters' petition by later voting to withdraw the district from the study committee."
"I think it speaks to what's wrong with the whole Act 46 process. It's stripping the authority away from duly elected officials," said Vernon School Board Chairman Mike Hebert, upon hearing Holcombe's statement, "When you look at the establishing of an Act 46 study committee, no one made it clear we were relinquishing all our authority. It was just going to be this advisory group to explore options for changing governance."
"We are still under the assumption that we are not a formal committee," said North Bennington board member Matthew Patterson. He also expressed frustration at the slow pace in which the SVSU committee is moving. The committee last met in May, and will meet again with a consultant from the state, Steve Sanborn, who has also been Arlington's consultant, in mid-July. North Bennington has already selected its community representative on that committee, Lierman said, while other districts still have not yet found people to fulfill that role. The initial plan was to have the committee meet, with community representatives, for the first time in the last week of June, after all boards had appointed community members at their June meetings. Woodford did not have any candidates by its regular June meeting, and is still searching. Bennington did not make appointments at its regular June meeting, but will hold a special meeting June 14 to interview candidates. Shaftsbury met on Wednesday, and Pownal and Mount Anthony Union boards will meet next week.
The North Bennington Prudential Committee meets the second Wednesday of every month in the library at the Village School of North Bennington. Full recordings of the meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.