Citizens look for answers on Act 46

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SHAFTSBURY — The town's representatives to the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee told voters on Tuesday that the proposed merger that will be decided next month follows the law's requirements as closely as possible.

"I was the original person elected to represent Shaftsbury on the committee," Jeff Leake told voters gathered at Shaftsbury Elementary School. "So I've been through three variations of this board. At this point we've come up with articles of agreement. What we were reminded is, we're following the law as written by the state and passed down to the school districts to implement... We're at the point where we've come up with a good set of articles that meet the criteria of the law, and that's what we're doing. Meeting the criteria of the law."

The community forum, designed to hear concerns and answer questions about the merger proposal on the table, was hosted by Leake, fellow Shaftsbury merger committee member Erin McEnaney and committee chairman Donald Campbell.

Documents handed out by the committee on Tuesday explained how the Mount Anthony Unified School District — not to be confused with the current Mount Anthony Union School District — would be formed if approved by voters in all four districts on Nov. 7.

The new district would have a single board and a single tax rate, which would be adjusted in each community by the common level of appraisal. The new district would also act as a single employer for all faculty and staff across all its schools.

In its documentation, the committee asks voters to consider these five points: "1. Governance merger is the law but this plan reflects local preferences — a forced merger might not; 2. Proposed MAU-style board structure gives all communities, big and small, a strong voice; 3. Extra protections built in for small schools; 4. Some form of school choice within the newly-created district; 5. Four years of education property tax incentives (8-6-4-2 cents)."

Campbell explained what the committee meant by extra protections for small schools, saying that the articles add an additional year, from four to five, from the moratorium on closing schools required by the law. It additionally requires two separate votes, no less than one year apart, of at least 75 percent of the board in order to close a school.

As far as school choice, the committee could not compel the future board to consider the option, but after five years the new board will have the opportunity to implement some form of school choice between all the public schools of the district, an option that isn't available today.

Should the merger be approved, the board of the new district will be made up of 11 members: Four from North Bennington, two each from North Bennington, Pownal, and Shaftsbury, and one from Woodford. This board will replace the SVSU, MAU, Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford school boards. North Bennington is not voting on joining the merger, but it will remain part of MAU, meaning that its two members on the district board would abstain from voting on elementary school issues, and the North Bennington Prudential Committee would continue to govern the North Bennington Graded School District. If one district votes not to join the merged district, it would most likely find itself in a similar situation. If more than one district, or Bennington, which the articles consider "necessary," votes no, then the merger fails.

The tax incentives that the law promises to districts that voluntarily merge prior to Nov. 30 were also discussed.

Even without those incentives, the act of normalizing the tax rate between the districts, each district would see changes. Based on this year's budget numbers, Bennington would see a one-cent increase, Pownal would see an eight-cent decrease, Shaftsbury would see no change, and Woodford would see a 13-cent increase. The incentives would artificially lower tax rates by eight cents in the first year of operation, then by two fewer in each subsequent year.

"What we did as a committee is we took this law that passed our legislature," said Leake. "We decided on this model. We could have sat back and done nothing and the state would have come down and said, 'This is what is going to happen.' The other option was, you come up with the best option available, to make the best package that we can. It might not be perfect, there's going to be some disagreements. If you look at how our board voted to warn the vote for the election, it was 3-2. There's definitely strong feelings for and against."

The forum lasted almost two hours, and covered many topics. One resident was concerned about merging with Bennington, pointing out the town has voted down several proposed school budgets in the recent past. Another wondered why Arlington hadn't been considered as a potential partner before Bennington. (It had, explained Campbell, but the process for leaving MAU ended up being too arduous for it to be a realistic option).

Other public forums are currently being scheduled, including at least one at the Bennington Fire Department.

The vote, which will include whether to form the district and an election of the district's board members, will take place on Nov. 7.

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB

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