Pownal should reconsider Act 46 warning

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On Thursday, the Pownal School Board failed to warn a November vote on whether to bring the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union into compliance with Act 46. The proposal was to create a unified pre-K through 12th grade school district for the communities of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford.

We believe that in doing so, the board did a serious disservice to the voters of Pownal by taking away their right to decide the future of their school system.

With one member absent, the board voted 2-2 on the motion to warn the vote, meaning the motion did not pass.

Unless that outcome is reversed, Pownal will be considered an automatic "no" vote, meaning the town will not be able to join the other SVSU districts in the proposed merger, if it is approved.

This does not guarantee Pownal's independence, however. While it is unclear exactly what the town's status would be if the other districts merge without them, the State Board of Education will still ultimately decide Pownal's fate.

By not voting to warn a vote, two members of the Pownal School Board have in effect decided to take their chances on the state's vision for Pownal's future, rather than allowing town voters to decide for themselves whether the merger proposal was the better choice.

That's not to say that the merger plan — created over the course of this summer by the SVSU Act 46 Study Committee — is a clear-cut one. People in all four communities have legitimate concerns about losing local control to a new regional board.

The "super-board," as it has been called by detractors, could vote to close a school without the approval of the community in which the school is located. However, the articles of agreement that the other communities will vote on includes additional protections for community schools above what the law requires.

Those include an additional year after the merger before the board would be able to move students or close schools (from four years to five), plus a requirement of two votes, no less than one year apart, with at least 75 percent of the board in favor, order to close a school.

If the State Board of Education decides on the structure of a merged district, those protections will almost certainly not be present.

Pownal's voters should also have the choice to pursue the tax incentives promised to districts that vote to voluntarily merge by Nov. 30. In the first year of the new district's operation, it would see its tax rate cut by 8 cents, followed by 6 cents the next year, then 4 cents, and 2 cents.

This is meant to ease the transition to a merged district for taxpayers. Even without the tax incentives, by merging with the much larger Bennington, which educates students at a lower cost, Pownal would have seen a 6.71 cent decrease, based on this year's spending numbers.

Including the incentives, Pownal residents would have collectively saved $759,118 in the first year, according to a Frequently-Asked-Questions document recently released by the study committee.

Whether or not it is better to pursue this merger now or wait for the state to decide what the new district will look like can be debated. But because of two members of the Pownal board, that debate will not take place in Pownal.

We believe the board should reconsider the motion with all five members present at a special meeting before Oct. 7, the last day possible to warn a Nov. 7 vote on the merger plan.


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