ST. ALBANS — Several Franklin County school boards have agreed to sign onto a lawsuit challenging possible school mergers recommended by the former Secretary of Education under Act 46, the state’s school consolidation law.
Two of those schools, Highgate and Sheldon, have only signed on provisionally, however, agreeing to reevaluate their involvement with the lawsuit at each subsequent school board meeting.
According to minutes from those schools’ respective school boards, the boards were hesitant to incur the legal expenses that’d come with a lawsuit. Signing on provisionally allowed the boards to learn more about the lawsuit while expressing solidarity with their neighboring districts without monetary commitment.
The school board in Montgomery, meanwhile, has agreed to participate in the lawsuit. The town’s selectboard has followed suit, agreeing to join the lawsuit and pledge money from the town’s general funds to pay for legal receipts incurred by litigation.
The Franklin Central School school board already agreed to join the lawsuit during a September vote, viewing the lawsuit’s requested injunction as the best option for resisting a likely consolidation of Missisquoi Valley Union (MVU) High School’s member districts under Act 46.
Among MVU’s member districts, only Swanton has declined entering the lawsuit, agreeing to sit out the suit in a 3-2 vote.
The lawsuit against Act 46 was filed by lawyer David F. Kelley at the behest of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members, a coalition of school boards opposed to forced consolidations under Act 46.
The suit argues that state-enforced consolidations would require reassigning ownership of school property and debt, therefore violating the Takings Clause of both the Vermont and federal constitutions.
It also argues that forcing a merger onto an already merged district would amend the merged district’s articles of agreement, which, according to the lawsuit, would be a violation of state law if done without a vote from that district’s member communities.
Kelley is expected to file the suit immediately after the State Board of Education issues a final Act 46 merger plan.
A subsequent injunction, if approved by a judge, would stall Act 46 mergers until litigation is settled, providing a window that, according to Act 46’s opponents, could be used to pressure legislators into amending or repealing the consolidation law.
The state board is required to have a plan drafted by the end of November.
Under a set of recommendations penned by then acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey, the Sheldon Town School District was recommended to merge with the Northern Mountain Valley Union (NMVU) school district, a district previously created from a voluntary merger of Berkshire’s and Bakersfield’s school districts.
A consolidation with NMVU would pull Sheldon from the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (FNWSU) and into the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU), a transition that could impact administrative functions and curriculum at the Sheldon school.
On Monday, the State Board of Education agreed with Bouchey’s recommended consolidation of Sheldon with the NMVU district, issuing a provisional decision on those recommendations during the board’s most recent meeting.
That merger would also include Montgomery, another FNESU school that previously rejected a merger with Bakersfield and Berkshire by 14 votes.
Sheldon’s decision to only provisionally join the lawsuit hinged on funding, as they wouldn’t be allowed to raise money from school budgets to afford legal fees. A hypothetical $5,000 price tag was floated during the meeting, but FNWSU Superintendent Julie Regimbal warned that legal costs were only speculation at this point.
“That’s just speculation,” Regimbal said during the most recent meeting of the Sheldon school board. “It all depends on how many lawyers, how long things go… If things are settled in two months, that’s one amount of money. If you have 20 districts involved, it’s less than if you have six.”
“However… at this point it doesn’t cost anything,” Regimbal would add later that meeting.
The board agreed that they didn’t have enough information to make a firm commitment to the lawsuit but voted unanimously to join provisionally as a means to learn more about the suit.
Their motion included language that would require the board to revisit the suit once the State Board of Education issues a decision or the lawsuit is filed.
Highgate made a similar decision, voting 4-1 in favor of provisionally signing onto the lawsuit.
Their motion requires the board to revisit the lawsuit in subsequent meetings, meaning the board might decide to pullout should it not want to incur the costs of a suit.
“I think it shows that we’re trying to support what we’ve been fighting against for two years,” said school board chair Chris Shepard. “I also think it sends a message – the more communities that sign onto this suit, it sends a message to the state.”
Montgomery agreed to join the lawsuit, with the selectboard committing funds from the town’s general fund to pay its school’s share of potential legal fees. The selectboard’s commitment depends on whether or not an injunction is successfully filed against the state’s Act 46 mergers.
The selectboard voted 4-1 to join the lawsuit.
The school board’s decision to join came with a split vote. Three members of the board, including school board chair Mary Niles, voted in favor of committing to the suit. Two voted no.
Some Montgomery residents have argued Montgomery is too geographically isolated from the rest of the supervisory union to make a merger practical.
Swanton, the largest community in FNWSU, declined to join the lawsuit when they met last week.
The board’s decision came with a 3-2 vote against joining the lawsuit, with board members stating that it seemed as though the State Board of Education had made its decision and a merger would happen regardless of the suit.
A provisional signature on the suit was championed primarily by the board’s chair, Terri O’Shea, who wanted to do so primarily as a display of solidarity with the Franklin Town School District.
Her support, O’Shea said, largely stemmed from the fact that residents in Franklin cited solidarity with Swanton and Highgate as one of their reasons for defeating a town vote that would have closed the Franklin school.
“They really talked about the fact that unity was so important to them, and they didn’t want to smack anyone else by withdrawing,” said the board’s chair, Terri O’Shea. “I think it would behoove us to approve, provisionally, joining the lawsuit.”
O’Shea clarified that the provisional signature came with the board saying that they didn’t see the community committing to long-term litigation.
Other board members, while critical of a forced MVU consolidation, were also critical of only signing onto a lawsuit provisionally. Some members thought it wasn’t actually a solidarity statement to sign onto a lawsuit only to pull out a week or so later, while others questioned the lawsuit entirely.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that we’ve arrived at this point,” said school board member Don Collins. “I live in the real world, and in the real world, folks, this game is over, lawsuit or no lawsuit.”
Collins suggested, instead, that it’d be better to focus on moving forward with whatever future would be ascribed to the schools.
“We certainly want to work with them and come to a viable solution,” Collins said. “But the final decision is what’s going to be best for the students in the long run, and that’s if we work together and trust each other.”
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