Act 46 conference committee stuck over which districts get a delay

Published: 4/19/2019 9:59:29 PM
Modified: 4/19/2019 9:59:16 PM

MONTPELIER — Negotiations between the House and the Senate on the question of granting school districts a one-year delay from forced mergers under Act 46 appear to be at a standstill.

A six-person conference committee met for the fifth time Thursday for what some had hoped would be a final round of talks. But House conferees instead rejected the central ask in the Senate’s latest proposal, and both sides have essentially retreated to their original positions.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who sponsored H.39, said she was “really, really disappointed” and worried there would be no deal. House lawmakers, she said, “had an opportunity today to agree to a proposal that essentially was the House bill with a couple of modifications.”

“I’m afraid that there might be some reluctance to even move forward with a bill at all, at this point, from some in the leadership,” she said. “So I’m frustrated.”

Both sides have ceded ground on relatively minor points. But on the key question of who gets a delay, the House and the Senate are now fundamentally at odds.

The House-passed legislation divides districts into roughly two camps: those where merger proposals were put before voters at some point, and those where no proposals were ever crafted at all. Operating under the assumption that districts in which local officials never created merger plans had little foundation upon which to consolidate, the House’s proposal in those instances grants the extra year.

On the Senate side, lawmakers have put forward a proposal to grant a delay to basically any district that asks for it, so long as those districts form unified school boards. (They would be allowed to retain independent budgets and boards.)

In the conference committee, Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, offered a third way: a deal that would keep the split between who can and can’t receive the delay, as originally envisioned by the House, but also require districts to form unified boards, as required by the Senate language. But Baruth’s compromise included an important caveat: It also granted a delay to a few districts that he said are just not far enough along in the merger process: Enosburg and Richford districts, as well as the districts in the Windham Southeast and Windham Northeast supervisory unions.

But House conferees, lead by Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, balked on Thursday at the idea of granting the carve-outs, and said that it would undermine the law and give the impression certain communities were getting special treatment.

And Baruth, in response, said that it was too late not to give all districts who needed it a delay, or expect newly unified districts to be operational come July 1. And he argued that to “ram” districts through this final phase could create chaos and backfire on the law’s forward momentum.

“We’re going to wind up with default budgets and that’s going to destroy a lot of the goodwill that I think is starting to maybe develop around their merged boards,” he said.

But Conlon countered that districts had begun the process of consolidation — even if reluctantly — and could meet the deadlines set out in law if they wanted.

“Our side continues to be, well, ‘needs a delay’ is in the eye of the beholder. And that making special exceptions without justification would put chinks into the law,” he said.

The concern over default budgets has further complicated matters. In normal situations, districts that cannot get a budget approved by their voters come July 1 are allowed to borrow a certain amount based on their prior year’s budget. But newly unified districts did not exist last year, and so do not have a prior year’s budget as a baseline.

Legislation to remedy the situation was supposed to be included in the delay bill. Both the House and Senate proposals allow the unified districts to borrow a certain percentage of the combined budget of their component districts, if they can’t pass a unified budget.

But Baruth told House conferees point-blank he wasn’t willing to pass out a bill that only dealt with default budgets and not also a delay.

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