Vermont Supreme Court upholds Act 46 and mandatory school district mergers

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The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday in a 3-2 vote in favor of the state’s decisions to require school district mergers as a way to address declining enrollment.

The law known as Act 46, which passed in 2015, offered incentives for school districts that chose to combine their governance structures and then allowed the State Board of Education to order involuntary mergers.

According to the Supreme Court’s decision, the law was created because “given the thirteen different types of school district governance structures in the state,” elementary and secondary education in Vermont lacked cohesive delivery of schooling. That, according to the court document, meant many school districts were not well-suited to economies of scale and lacked flexibility to manage and share resources.

A group of independent school districts, school boards, parents and students filed a lawsuit objecting to Act 46 and to Act 49, an update to the original law that was passed two years later. The plaintiffs argued among other issues that elements of how the state Board of Education implemented Act 46 violated provisions of the state constitution.

“Plaintiffs’ arguments are inconsistent with the legislative intent underlying Acts 46 and 49,” the court ruled in its decision.

“While it may not be the outcome some districts wanted,” Secretary of Education Dan French said Friday in a statement, “I hope they can move forward under these new structures to achieve greater equity and value for students, parents, voters and taxpayers.”

Two justices opposed the ruling.

“When small districts are involuntarily merged, their votes are diluted, and they lose control over education in their towns. This is contrary to our history and to the express provisions of Act 46,” Associate Justice Harold Eaton wrote in his dissent. 

Eaton concluded by quoting the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/’Til it’s gone.”

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at (802) 660-1844 or bhallenbeck@freepressmedia.com. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.

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