School officials in Stowe, Elmore and Morristown are moving swiftly, in both the courthouse and the Statehouse, to fight the Vermont State Board of Education’s order that they merge into a single district.
The Lamoille South Supervisory Union announced last week it has filed a lawsuit challenging the merger, claiming numerous violations of state and federal law, including Act 46, the very law intended to get small school districts to merge into larger organizations (see related article).
At the same time, school officials hope to persuade the Legislature to change Act 46 during the next session, which begins Jan. 9.
“I have this crazy fantasy that we’ll get what we want early in the session,” superintendent Tracy Wrend said at Monday’s Stowe School Board meeting.
The Stowe and the Elmore-Morristown districts are contemplating hiring the Montpelier lobbying firm Leonine Public Affairs to make their case to lawmakers.
All legislators who represent the three towns signed a letter last month urging the state board to reconsider its merger order.
Not long ago, persuading the Legislature to change Act 46 might have been a hard sell, but people from all sides of the political spectrum have been grumbling about the law in light of the state board’s decision.
And Gov. Phil Scott told the Stowe Reporter two weeks ago that he doesn’t think that the state board ought to have the authority to forcibly merge school districts. He said that decision should be left up to his administration.
“From my standpoint, no, I think that we’ve gotten to a point where the state board has too much power,” Scott said. “I think it should fall to the administration, to the secretary (of education), but that’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”
Maybe not overnight, but time is ticking, and Stowe, Morristown and Elmore school officials have a series of calendar dates related to the merger: new elections, votes on the new merged district’s structure, and three different budget votes — one for each of the two school districts, in case the merger is delayed, and a third sometime before July, in case the merger goes ahead as planned.
The bonds that tie
Some Stowe School Board members still hope to get a construction bond approved before July 1, when the new Lamoille South unified school district would start governing.
That’s despite the time crunch to form the new merged district while simultaneously conducting legal and political gambits. And it’s despite Wrend’s warnings of political fallout.
“I will struggle with advising two bodies with possible differing opinions,” Wrend said. “Our collaboration is important going forward.”
The Stowe board’s capital committee spent months assessing what the elementary, middle and high schools need, coming up with preliminary architectural designs, and estimating the cost at $20 million to $25 million.
In a merged school district, any spending or indebtedness would be borne by taxpayers in all three towns, not just Stowe.
School board members Jim Brochhausen and Tiffany Donza — she was the board’s representative on the capital committee — brushed aside any political ramifications, saying their concerns lay strictly with the needs of Stowe students.
Brochhausen said if Stowe voters could approve a bond in the next couple of months, it would get the ball rolling on the construction process, which was already anticipated to last a couple of years. If not, he said, the new merged board would have to put together a committee to look at the overall district’s capital needs, and then go through designs and bonding and then construction. Optimistically, he said, it would be finished by 2024, and that’s if voters in all three towns approve it, and that’s just Stowe’s needs.
“The ‘what ifs’ cut both ways,” Brochhausen said. “What if we don’t move forward?”
But even some Stowe residents who were on the committee doubt the wisdom of moving forward.
David Jaqua, the committee’s closest thing to a spokesman, had said before the merger order that he doubted Stowe could get a bond proposal prepared in time for Town Meeting Day. He said the town has a history of voting down bonds the first time around — the public safety building and ice rink were all denied at first.
Calling the decision a “Hobbesian tradeoff,” Jaqua said, “If you propose this bond, you’re weakening your position of remaining independent.”
Despite protests from Brochhausen and Donza that the kids’ needs trump politics, board chair Cara Zimmerman put her foot down.
“We are not ready for this vote in March,” she said. “I am nervous about going to vote on something we’re not ready for.”