Act 46 mergers, and lawsuits, complicate school budgeting

State Board of Education

Members of the school boards from Athens, Grafton, Westminster and Rockingham speak during a meeting of the State Board of Education in Barre on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. They oppose the board’s merger plan for their districts. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The legal tussle over Act 46 is complicating budgeting in districts being ordered to merge by the state.

According to the consolidation law, districts ordered to merge by the State Board of Education are supposed to be operational as consolidated entities by July 1. But one lawsuit challenging the mergers has asked a judge to delay implementation until the merits of the case itself are considered, and some lawmakers, too, plan to introduce legislation to push back the start date.

That’s left an open question as to whether forced mergers will actually go into effect this summer. An agreement by both parties in one lawsuit to briefly postpone some merger activity in certain districts until mid-February has further confused matters.

Many local school officials, like Washington Central Supervisory Union superintendent Bill Kimball, say they’re operating under the assumption that the mergers will go through.

“Right now it’s not a vague question because we’re under an order from the State Board of Education to do so,” he said.

Still, Washington Central’s school boards haven’t foreclosed the possibility of remaining independent for another year. The actual budgets they’ve developed for next year aren’t yet unified, although they can easily be consolidated, Kimball said, once a transitional board is installed.

Per an agreement between plaintiffs in one Act 46 lawsuit (to which Washington Central’s school districts are parties) and the state, organizational meetings for transitional boards in merging districts have been postponed from January until mid-February. Transitional school boards are tasked with crafting proposed unified budgets and warning a meeting for the election for the first school board of the unified board.

According to a timeline provided by the Agency of Education to those districts, delaying the transitional board’s first meeting to February pushes back a vote of the electorate on budgets all the way until May. That, at this point, is the main concern, several superintendents said. Kimball pointed out that contracts with his teachers require the districts to notify educators if they have a job next year by April 15. That’s difficult to do when voters won’t get to formally weigh in on budgets until May.

“We won’t get an approved budget until very late, and that affects hiring always,” said Windham Southeast Supervisory Union superintendent Lyle Holiday.

But some local school officials are taking a different tack. In Westminster, for example, board chair David Major says district officials are planning to proceed as they have in prior years — unless and until a judge rules against the plaintiffs’ request to delay implementation of the mergers. The school board has adopted a proposed budget for the individual district and warned a meeting for the electorate to vote on it in March, he said.

“That’s the responsible thing to do. That’s what the townspeople elected me to do,” Major said.

Major’s logic is echoed in recent filings by plaintiffs requesting an immediate status conference in the case. The filing pushes back against recent guidance from the state, which tells school districts appealing the mergers that unless a judge rules otherwise, the State Board’s order remains in effect.

“The Appellant school districts are under a legal obligation to present school budgets for a vote on Town Meeting Day, which for many towns requires finalizing budgets for publishing Town Meeting Day reports by the end of January,” wrote David Kelley, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, it’s still unclear which judge will sit on the case. Washington County Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout disclosed earlier that her daughter is a sitting board member in one of the plaintiff districts, and the state has asked her to step away from the case. It’s still unknown if she will.