Act 46 delay makes sense

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A bill granting a one-year delay to some school districts that have yet to merge under Act 46 passed in the state House of Representatives last week, and is being taken up by the state Senate. That happened after the House Education Committee declined to support a full one-year delay for all affected districts facing a merger mandate from the Board of Education.

The delay approved by the House does not include several districts whose voters have rejected merger plans, including in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU), based in Brattleboro, and in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union (SVSU), centered in Bennington. It does, however, grant delays to districts such as Stowe that haven't put a merger plan to a vote, and instead sued the state Board of Education over its forced merger plans. That delay makes sense, given the timing and the legal process.

Whether you think this proposal is good or flawed likely depends on where you're standing.

Districts that overcame significant hurdles to complete Act 46 mergers — Rochester closed its high school to make a merger work — might feel taken for granted. But keep in mind that districts which observed the state's merger deadlines are now enjoying property tax incentives as a result. Districts that haven't merged yet won't get those tax breaks, and they don't have the peace of mind that comes from being finished with this process.

For voters who had their "no" votes overruled by BOE, the lack of a one-year reprieve might feel like adding insult to injury. Allowing the BOE to ignore the will of local voters is the law's least defensible feature. But these communities are also home to people who supported mergers for a variety of reasons. (In the SVSU, a merger fell short by a mere two votes, and would have won had the ballots been counted collectively.) The House Education Committee heard their concerns that another year of delay might only worsen divisions between those for and against district mergers. And there's a case to be made that moving ahead with plans that had at least some support could bring a measure of closure, and allow the new merged districts to move forward.

But a delay is also an opportunity for those communities to make a concerted effort at finding common ground. Now that everyone knows what BOE has in mind, absent a court decision derailing its plans, there's new motivation for would-be merger partners to reach consensus, or at least make the best of the circumstances. Additional time to plan for a shared future, paired with strong leadership from administrators and school boards, might get those merged districts off to a stronger start than pushing them together and hoping everything works.

It's not impossible. After all, in the WSESU and the SVSU, the proposed merger districts roughly follow the footprint of high school union districts which, for 50 years, have successfully worked together. Clearly, they can do the same for their elementary school children.

A delay for towns that voted "no" also gives those communities a chance to put off formally committing to a merger they can't undo. If those districts merge and the lawsuit against the state fails, they could be stuck in partnerships the voters didn't want. The will of the voters matters.

There's no real wrong answer here, and the compromise passed by the House is a workable solution produced by thoughtful deliberation. But consider this: A good part of the intent of Act 46 is providing equal opportunity to every Vermont child, through merged districts that can afford programs and innovations that would not otherwise be possible for small districts standing alone. Treating the remaining unmerged districts equally with regard to implementing the law best honors that intent.

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