MONTPELIER — Members of a House committee have set the stage for a floor vote on a bill that calls for a one-year delay in the implementation of Vermont’s school district consolidation law.
Members of the House Education Committee capped Friday’s seven-hour session by voting, 7-2, to forward the bill and their negative recommendation to the full House for its consideration next week.
The latest chapter in the Act 46 odyssey played out in a cramped committee room where lawmakers — most of them wary about making any changes to the near-four-year-old law — reluctantly opened the door to that possibility.
Hours after rejecting the bill and an amendment its lead sponsor proposed at the start of the day, members concluded an amendment that was drafted on the fly in hopes of brokering an elusive compromise raised more questions than it answered.
“This is complex, it’s difficult, it’s hard and it’s distressing to figure out what the right path is,” said Chairwoman Rep. Webb, D-Shelburne, who spent much of the day holding out hope the committee could come up with language a majority of its members could get behind.
That hope faded after Webb reviewed the hastily drafted proposal that included the requested extension and a token incentive for districts that have been ordered to merge and do so by July 1. However, the bill didn’t indicate how and by whom the decision to select a launch date would be made, prompting a flurry of questions from Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, and others.
Would voters of a merged district decide? If so, would they do so collectively or individually? Would it be left to the discretion of the school board, and if it was, would it be the new board or the ones that currently exist?
“We’ve entered a policy world that we’re not equipped to address this afternoon,” Conlon said.
Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex, admitted it wasn’t optimal and it might send a confusing signal. However, he said it was the cleanest way to allow for the promised debate on some version of a bill introduced by a tri-partisan coalition of lawmakers led by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe.
“People want to have a vote on ‘delay,’” Giambatista said of a proposal that would push the launch date for mergers ordered under Act 46 to some time “on or before July 1, 2020.”
Scheuermann, who isn’t a member of the committee but has been a frequent visitor thus far this session, told members she believed the extension was crucial, notwithstanding three separate lawsuits — including one challenging the forced merger of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown districts.
“Without the delay, the only people who will be detrimentally impacted are our students,” she said.
Debate on the law showed no signs of abating Friday, and Webb said competing emails were still coming in.
“Is there a reason why we’re voting so soon,” said Rep. Sarah “Sarita” Austin, D-Colchester, suggesting that with three court cases pending and the potential for a clarifying decision in one of them perhaps two weeks away, the committee should take a breath and wait.
Austin was told waiting wasn’t an option based on a floor vote Scheuermann was promised by House leaders in exchange for withdrawing an amendment calling for a deadline extension to the budget adjustment act earlier in the week.
“Promises were made,” said Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro.
“We’re honoring our agreement and our word is important,” Webb added.
Webb, who voted against the bill and Scheuermann’s proposed amendment earlier in the day, said while it wasn’t her preference, she could support advancing it with a negative recommendation.
“I would agree to move it to the floor,” she said, prior to a vote that saw members who supported the proposed extension agree to forward it with a negative recommendation. They were joined by most members who feared advancing the bill to a floor vote would inject chaos and confusion into the process.
That left Elder and Austin in the minority, satisfied Scheuermann and set the stage for a floor debate Webb predicted would occur Wednesday.
Scheuermann is hoping to round up 76 lawmakers to support the proposal that some fear will derail mergers on their way to completion and be used by those more interested in undermining the law than having more time to comply with it.
Though approval in the House is far from a sure thing, and the Senate hasn’t yet weighed in, Giambatista expressed concern early about opening the door to an extension.
“We’re not taking an action until it becomes law, but we’re sending a signal,” he said.
“A confusing one,” said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.
Though VSBA members’ mixed opinions on the subject prevented Mace from weighing in on the proposal, she did note it could be potentially disruptive.
“This essentially kicks this controversy back to local communities,” she said. “It does not solve the problem for districts that are ready to move forward.”