MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved a bill that would give some school districts ordered to merge under Act 46 an extra year to prepare for that transition, while requiring others to heed the July 1 deadline that was written into the law four years ago.
Less than 24 hours after narrowly rejecting a “blanket extension” requested by a tri-partisan coalition of lawmakers led by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, the House approved a Solomonesque solution designed to give some districts more time to consummate their state-ordered mergers.
Thursday’s pivotal vote came on an amendment Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, advanced on behalf of fellow members of the House Education Committee. The freshly amended amendment passed, 134-10, on a roll call vote that set the stage for a couple of voice votes that weren’t unanimous, but were pretty darn close.
The lopsided decision and the subdued debate that preceded it stood in stark contrast to Wednesday’s spirited session that ended when Scheuermann’s amendment failed by five votes, 69-74.
That proposal, critics claimed would have threatened mergers in districts where the July 1 deadline is actually doable and no special accommodation is required.
Conlon’s committee wrestled with Scheuermann’s request before advancing a bill with a negative recommendation last week. That set the stage for the floor vote Scheuermann was promised by House leadership.
During what some complained was a tortured process, that vote was delayed Tuesday — buying time for the committee to draft a competing amendment that was voted out with a favorable recommendation that afternoon. The measure has cleared the House and is headed to the Senate. Assuming the Senate approves the bill and Gov. Phil Scott signs it several districts subject to merger orders issued by the state Board of Education late last year will have until July 1, 2020 to launch their consolidated districts.
That assumes Judge Robert Mello, who is hearing three separate legal challenges to Act 46 doesn’t add a fresh wrinkle by ruling in favor of some or all of the plaintiffs.
Conlon said the committee wasn’t concerned about the courts when it agreed to make limited exceptions to the July 1 deadline.
“Act 46 is the law until it’s no longer the law,” he said.
Conlon defended a proposal that acknowledges — for a variety of reasons — some districts are more ready to meet the statutory deadline than others.
“It’s a tailored approach to help different districts meet the requirements of Act 46,” he said.
Conlon said some districts are “well on the path to meeting the July 1 deadline” and will still be required to do so. Those districts floated — in some cases repeatedly — mergers that were rejected by voters in some, or all, of the necessary communities.
That list includes the Barre Supervisory Union, the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, the Orleans Central Supervisory Union, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union and the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
Granting extensions to districts in those supervisory unions was widely viewed by the committee as unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.
Conlon said the committee made the “pragmatic decision” to recommend a one-year extension in several supervisory unions where merger proposals were never presented to voters.
“No matter your opinion of how these districts got to where they are, the fact is, meeting that July 1 deadline would be very difficult,” he said.
That list includes the Washington Central Supervisory Union, anchored by U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier, as well as the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union, the Lamoille South Supervisory Union, the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, and Bradford and Newbury — both partners in the Oxbow Union High School.
Those districts would get an extra year to complete the transition if the bill that passed Thursday becomes law. However, they would be required to adopt articles of agreement for the merged district by July 1 or risk being saddled with the default articles drafted by the state Board of Education.
The newly passed bill also addresses several other districts — most of them single districts the state has recommended be absorbed by previously merged districts in their supervisory unions. Those districts include Huntington, Cambridge, Barnard, Windham and Orwell, as well as Montgomery and Sheldon.
What Conlon and others described as a “compromise amendment” generated more questions than critiques and was backed by most of those who voted for and against Scheuermann’s amendment on Wednesday.
That included Scheuermann, whose home district — Stowe — is among those that will be afforded a legislative reprieve if the House-passed bill becomes law.
Though Scheuermann said she would have preferred a blanket extension, she was satisfied with Thursday’s outcome.
“This is a good place to end up,” she said, suggesting she is hopeful the bill will pass in the Senate.
“I know senators are interested in having this discussion,” she said.