MONTPELIER — A scheduled vote on a bill calling for a one-year delay in the implementation of Vermont’s school district consolidation law was itself delayed on Tuesday.
Rep. Kathryn Webb, D-Shelburne, moved the promised floor vote be postponed for one day and later informed members of the House Education Committee she hadn’t given up hope a majority of them could coalesce behind different language.
Webb, who heads the committee, acknowledged settling on a solution wouldn’t be simple, given the strong preference of a majority of the panel to leave the deadlines outlined in Act 46 intact and let legal challenges to the law play out.
The chairwoman acknowledged the absence of an appetite on the committee for the “blanket delay” sought by a tri-partisan coalition of lawmakers led by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe. The committee rejected the proposal and an amendment offered by Scheuermann on a pair of 7-4 votes last week before grudgingly agreeing to report it out with a negative recommendation. That vote was 8-2 and set the stage for Tuesday’s vote before Webb asked that it be deferred.
Webb told the committee an alternate amendment to Scheuermann’s bill was in the process of being drafted and bought time by outlining the ready-or-not rationale behind the proposed legislation.
Webb noted some districts are more ready than others to meet the July 1 deadline included in Act 46. She said some districts have expressed concern a blanket delay would upset still fragile alliances, embolden merger critics and quite likely derail plans to launch new state-ordered school districts this year.
Others have argued July 1 is a daunting deadline for a transition they had hoped to avoid. They maintain the requested one-year extension is a reasonable accommodation.
Webb’s proposal seeks to distinguish between the two. It retains the deadline for districts where the merger process is underway and consolidated districts could be operational by July 1.
At the same time it affords the requested extension to districts where there is arguably more work to do.
Webb said the criteria used to make that determination was relatively simple. In cases, like Barre, where a state-sanctioned study committee drafted articles of agreement that were presented to voters, the July 1 deadline would stand.
In addition to Barre, that list includes districts in five other supervisory unions — Orleans Central, Windham Southeast, Windham Northeast, Southwest and Franklin Northeast. All are subject to separate merger orders that would remain intact if the proposal is approved.
Five other state-ordered mergers in districts where voters were never asked to weigh in would be given an extra year.
That list includes Washington Central, the Lamoille South Supervisory Union, Oxbow, the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union and the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union.
The proposal creates added flexibility and potentially more time for six other mergers — five of them involving single districts that could be permitted to join existing districts that merged under Act 46, in keeping with the state board’s recommendation.
“The challenge is trying to put this into legal writing that makes sense,” Webb said.
However, committee members — including some who were openly skeptical of the unsolicited proposal — said they could back what they viewed as a fair compromise.
That view was shared by Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, and Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.
Mace acknowledged some would argue — like Scheuermann did — that a blanket delay would be cleaner, but noted differentiating between districts made sense.
“It’s complicated, but in my view it’s reflective of the complicated situation on the ground,” Mace said.
“The line that you’ve drawn here is clear and it seems fair,” she said.
Francis agreed, noting that the proposal would provide some sorely needed clarity by requiring districts that are ready to heed the July 1 deadline and putting those that aren’t on the clock.
“If you can put the acrimony in this law to rest sooner rather than later that would be the best thing you could do,” he said.
Scheuermann was among those who expressed reservations about what some viewed as a “divide-and-conquer” proposal.
Though Scheuermann said she appreciated the fact that her home district — Stowe — would receive an extra year to complete a forced merger with the Elmore-Morristown district, the exclusion of other districts was problematic in her view.
“I think it would be a hard sell on the floor to give that opportunity to some districts and not others,” she said.
By the time it was over, a clear majority of the committee backed the amendment that Webb said sets the stage for back-to-back floor votes Wednesday.
The new amendment, which was approved, 7-4, won’t replace the one proposed by Scheuermann, but it will be offered as an alternative if Scheuermann’s fails.
Webb said Scheuermann’s amendment would be considered first and the one that enjoys the committee’s favorable recommendation will be voted on in the event it fails. If both amendments are rejected, the July 1 deadline written into Act 46 nearly four years ago would remain in tact pending judicial intervention or additional legislation.