SWANTON – Residents from Franklin, Highgate and Swanton voted Wednesday night to postpone the organizational meeting for the state-mandated consolidation of their respective school districts until March 21, extending the merger process at least another month.
An organizational meeting was originally scheduled for Wednesday, during which residents from the merging school districts were invited to elect temporary transitional officers for the merger and decide whether the merged district’s elections would be decided by Australian ballot or floor votes.
That meeting came to an early end when residents voted to postpone the meeting another month, with the initial motion for postponement made by Franklin school board chair Bob Berger. An additional month, Berger argued, would allow enough time for Judge Robert A. Mello to issue a decision on a request for an injunction against Act 46 mergers while the merger law is debated in court.
Berger’s initial motion was to postpone the meeting until March 20.
“I feel that the 30 days between now and March 20 is sufficient to give Judge Mello time to render a decision,” Berger said. “At that point we would move forward.”
As Missisquoi Valley Union High School’s Trahan Theater, where last night’s meeting was held, was scheduled for use on March 20, Berger amended the postponement date from March 20 to March 21.
Franklin’s and Highgate’s school districts are both plaintiffs in one of three lawsuits challenging Act 46, the state’s school consolidation law, as unconstitutional.
Those suits are currently being argued in Franklin County Superior Court, with Mello presiding.
The Franklin selectboard is also a plaintiff in that suit.
While an organizational meeting for the ordered Enosburgh – Richford merger was also postponed earlier this week, that postponement was not made with a set date. Instead, voters opted to postpone until Mello issues a final ruling in the suits, muddying the timeline for a consolidation still beholden to a July 1, 2019, deadline.
The Richford school board is a plaintiff in that statewide lawsuit.
It was also uncertain what the legal ramifications of that postponement were. An email to Donna Russo-Savage, identified on the Agency of Education’s website as the state’s contact for information pertaining to Act 46, was not returned by press time on Thursday.
Those legal questions came with clearer answers Wednesday night.
“We heard from the [Agency of Education] today about this issue,” said Julie Regimbal, the superintendent of the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (FNWSU). “We adjourn or postpone with a date and time specified, we should be fine without needing to warn it at all.”
Reactions from the forming districts’ school board members to postponing the meeting was mixed.
When the meeting’s presiding officer Tim Magnant asked school board members to stand if they supported postponing the meeting, only five school board members stood, including the entire three-person Franklin school board.
“One of the key reasons that I’m for this delay is because a component of the request for the injunction is that this meeting tonight may cause irreparable harm to the taxpayers of this electorate,” said Devin Bachelder, the vice chair of the Franklin school board. “I just think it’s prudent for us to wait and see if that’s a valid argument that our attorneys have put forward.”
When Magnant asked school board members opposed to postponing the meeting to stand, those members standing outnumbered those supporting a postponement.
“I would like to say that I do not believe that postponing this meeting at this point would be beneficial,” said Meaghan Conly of the Swanton school board. “We are already under an intense time crunch, and pushing this off another 30 days is just taking more time away from the transitional board being able to do their work.”
“My concern or question is how does this affect contracts and budgets going forward?” asked Chris Sheppard, the chair of the Highgate school board. “By postponing this 30 days, how much does this affect our planning this coming year?”
“It would be a challenge,” Regimbal answered. “We’re already in a challenge with the delay that we’ve had so far. Another 30 days… pushes the budget out to the end of May, likely, which, of course, impacts and sends a message to our teachers and our students.”
One of the key arguments behind the plaintiffs’ calls for an injunction to temporarily halt Act 46 mergers is that moving forward with these organizational meetings could cause some form of irreparable financial harm, as warning transitional meetings would require reimbursing officers and paying to warn subsequent meetings.
Should the court ultimately side with the plaintiffs, it could order the state to reimburse the supervisory unions charged with spending money for those transitional meetings, something the plaintiffs argue still constitutes a harm as those funds would have to come from state funds raised through taxes.
That information was reiterated Wednesday night by Jay Denault, a Franklin resident who has been involved in opposition to Act 46 statewide.
“If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in this case… it would be virtually impossible to unwind the financial activities they’re involved in,” Denault said. “Every action that this supports would have to be reimbursed.”
When the question was called, voters agreed to vote via paper ballot.
Of the 137 votes cast, 100 voted in favor of the postponement. Thirty-six opposed postponing an organizational meeting and one vote was left blank.
Voters from Franklin, Highgate and Swanton are now asked to vote in an organizational meeting scheduled for MVU’s Trahan Theater on March 21 at 7 p.m.
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