MONTPELIER — A tri-partisan coalition of lawmakers is asking for time and money, though they only spoke about the need for the former during a Thursday afternoon news conference that set the stage for a legislative debate over what to do about Act 46.
With three lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school district consolidation law now pending and important deadlines looming, the group, led by Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, and Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, made the case for “pressing the pause button” on Act 46.
Claiming time isn’t on the side of dozens of school districts that were recently ordered to merge under the most controversial aspect of the law, Mrowicki, Scheuermann and Burke took turns touting the need for an extension — if not a flat-out moratorium — given what they view as its questionable constitutionality.
The coalition has proposed both in a pair of bills that were read for the first time Thursday and referred to the House Education Committee.
One of the bills would essentially grant a one-year extension to districts that were ordered by the State Board of Education late last year. Barring a judicial reprieve, those districts, which are now scheduled to be launched July 1 would have an extra 12 months to prepare for the state-imposed transition.
The other calls for a moratorium that would put involuntary mergers on hold until all of the pending litigation and any subsequent appeals are resolved.
In separate legislation the same group of lawmakers is asking transition grants afforded to districts that voluntarily merged be provided to those districts that didn’t. Based on the proposed formula, those grants would amount to $150,000 for most, if not all, districts.
Though he is among the listed co-sponsors Mrowicki said he wasn’t familiar with the details of that legislation when asked about it after Thursday’s news conference in the Cedar Creek Room at the State House had ended.
Mrowicki kicked off the press conference by making a pitch for more time.
“We’re at the stage of enactment of Act 46 that might be similar to that last mile of broadband service lots of us are hoping for,” he said. “There’s no easy solutions, and it’s going to take time, and that’s what we’re asking for.
“The low-hanging fruit has been picked, and now the more difficult situations are remaining,” he added. “Making this even more difficult is the flexibility that we thought we wrote into Act 46 and Act 49 has not been exercised.”
Instead many districts have been ordered to merge prompting three recently filed lawsuits that await their first hearings. One has challenged the forced merger of the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe school districts, another was filed on behalf of 32 school districts from several different supervisory unions around the state and the latest seeks to block a merger involving the school district in Huntington.
Scheuermann argued there are a lot of questions raised in those lawsuits that won’t be answered before districts are required to merge.
“We are … in limbo,” she said. “We don’t know what the results of those legal cases are going to be.”
That’s why, Scheuermann said, the coalition of lawmakers is focused on getting an extension that would give the legal process time to play out without disrupting existing school districts.
“What we can’t do … is move forward on involuntary mergers because … it will be virtually impossible to unravel those merged districts once they’re merged,” she said.
Burke echoed that assessment, suggesting the requested moratorium was warranted “so that we can untangle the legal issues before we move forward.”
Flanked by several fellow lawmakers Mrowicki and Scheuermann spoke with guarded optimism about the prospects of passing one of the two bills they said would delay implementation of the forced mergers.
Mrowicki said House and Senate leaders were “very receptive” during initial conversations.
“We’re hopeful we can find a middle way forward,” he said without elaborating.
Scheuermann added, “There is certainly an openness on the part of leaders in both chambers at this point,” describing the proposed extension as “the smart and responsible thing to do.”