BENNINGTON >> The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee voted to formally dissolve on Tuesday.
The decision was made to allow North Bennington to leave the committee and seek its own options elsewhere, as well as to allow the remaining districts to explore a wider range of options.
The North Bennington representatives on the committee, Matthew Patterson and Bruce Lierman, requested at the committee's last meeting that consultant Steve Sanborn clarify ways they could leave the committee, so that they could be free to join other study committees with which they are a better fit. Because of North Bennington's desire to maintain, if not expand, school choice, it would not be able to merge with the rest of the SVSU. Act 46 does not allow districts with varying levels of choice to merge, unless the districts seek the approval of the Agency of Education as an "alternative structure." The state has already advised Superintendent Jim Culkeen that an alternative structure resembling how the SVSU is currently formatted would likely not be approved.
"In the end, we all know that, even if you vote to form this new district, we wouldn't be allowed in it," said Patterson on Tuesday, after Sanborn explained that North Bennington could become an inactive member of the SVSU's committee, but would still not be able to become voting members of another committee, "because we're not compliant with Act 46. Our situation doesn't fit, we don't have a partner as a K-6 choice district. We can't even join a side-by-side."
"I interpret these things in exactly the opposite way," said Lierman, who suggested that the committee vote to disband, and then reform without North Bennington, "I can't imagine why others on this study committee would want us as part of these deliberations, knowing that in the end we're probably incompatible. Why should we have a voice in what's going on in this study committee if, in the end, we're not going to end up as part of this unified district?"
"I agree 100 percent with what you're saying," said Bennington representative George Sleeman, "and I think it's wrong that we, as a committee, don't allow you people to do what you want to do."
Sanborn warned that dissolving and reforming would probably cost the committee at least six weeks. Forming the committee initially required a vote of the SVSU board, then two votes from every member district, the first to join the committee and the second to appoint members. The SVSU board next meets during the fourth week of September, meaning that the earliest the committee could reconvene is early November, after boards vote to rejoin and reappoint members at their October meetings.
SVSU legal counsel Steve Stitzel warned that if a new committee is formed that includes Mount Anthony Union, the committee will still need to, "deal with the North Bennington issue," as North Bennington remains a member of that union unless it disbands or if every member community votes to allow North Bennington to leave. "I'm not sure how the AOE would look at a study committee being formed that includes a union high school district, but does not include all the members of the union high school," said Stitzel.
"I'm not persuaded that this committee could not proceed with everyone who's in the room right now," said Stitzel, "but ultimately come up with a report that says we are going to reorganize as a unified union district, we will have four of the elementary districts continuing on with that, and our recommendation is that we allow North Bennington to withdraw from MAU. Again, the votes have to occur, but I don't know that this committee has to disband before it can pursue that option."
Shaftsbury representatives Jeff Leake and Jessica Smith warned that their district might decide not have interest in forming a unified union district, and might not have interest in joining a newly formed SVSU study committee. Leake said they could choose instead to re-examine a merger with Arlington, or even close their school, reopen it as an independent academy as North Bennington did, and join North Bennington as a merged K-12 choice district. "There are a lot of moving pieces," he said.
Smith suggested another option, that Bennington could form its own district, and Shaftsbury, Pownal and Woodford could form their own K-6 district with school choice for middle and high school, which would allow their students to attend MAU, Arlington, Burr and Burton, Mount Greylock, or others, based on the wishes of the parents.
Stitzel and Sanborn agreed that, legally, a structure such as that one is possible in theory, but as an alternative structure would not be eligible for any of the financial incentives built into Act 46. Sanborn said it could also affect schools that currently receive small schools grants.
"We're going to lose our small schools grant anyway," said Dick Frantz of Woodford, "so I don't think that figures into our equation. I think we'd like to have more students in Woodford, so a merger that allows some shifting of bodies from one place to another is a good thing. But, I think we need the protection of a larger organization, and some type of merger needs to happen."
After almost two hours of discussion, the board voted 8-5 to dissolve the committee. The full meeting was filmed by Catamount Access Television, and is available on its Youtube channel. The next meeting was scheduled for Sept. 13, and Culkeen said the SVSU would instead host an Act 46 forum, so that discussions could continue while the committee is being reformed. He said the financial office would work with each board to find funds to continue funding Sanborn's consulting services during that period.
"(Act 46) is a failed legislation that has been Band-Aided together for two years, and we're seeing the results of it right here," said state Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, who voted against the legislation when it was passed in 2015, "and I appreciate the discussion here tonight, because it is finally a very solid discussion... this is not a good piece of legislation for our districts who are trying to do the right thing."
Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.