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Vt. school districts to hold meetings despite pending merger lawsuits



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2019

The Oxbow Unified Union School District will hold its School District meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, in the Oxbow High School auditorium.

BRADFORD, Vt. — Despite the uncertainty surrounding school districts forced to merge under Act 46, Oxbow Unified Union School District is one of many newly formed districts that will hold transitional board meetings on Monday.

The meetings are to assess initial business such as electing a moderator, clerk and treasurer and to determine methods for electing School Board members and selecting a budget.

The new district would combine Oxbow High — which serves residents of Bradford and Newbury, Vt., in grades 7 through 12 — with Bradford Elementary School and Newbury Elementary School.

Newbury Elementary is one of 31 plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to block merger activity while the Vermont Superior Court weighs the merits of the forced mergers.

Meanwhile, a bill that earlier this month passed the Vermont House, HB39, would delay until July 2020 the enactment of some of the new districts, including the Oxbow Unified Union. The bill still must be approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Phil Scott.

Despite the pending legislation, the Vermont Agency of Education ordered Monday’s meetings to take place.

Many such meetings originally were scheduled for on or around Jan. 23, but were postponed because of an agreement reached between the Board of Education and representatives for the plaintiffs during a conference, according to Ted Fisher, director of communications for the Agency of Education.

Asked if efforts were made for another such conference to potentially postpone the meetings a second time, Fisher said the Agency of Education has a policy prohibiting comment about matters regarding pending litigation.

Meanwhile, officials such as Oxbow School Board Chairman Adam Lornitzo — one of six transitional board members, two from each school — have little choice but to operate without knowing the ultimate fate of the districts as they stand.

“We’re in a state of limbo, but we have to move forward,” Lornitzo said in a recent phone interview. “We have to consider both possibilities.”

Paul Jewett, Newbury’s longtime School Board chairman, feels the meetings could amount to a waste of time.

Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Mello heard arguments from both school district plaintiffs and state lawmakers on Feb. 15 in St. Albans but has yet to rule on the former’s injunction request.

“There’s a lot of confusion and consternation over this,” Jewett said. “I understand it would be a scramble to get everything together by this July 1, but from what I’ve gathered, the judge will announce his ruling on the injunction within the next two weeks. Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until we know what the scenario is going to be? I find it odd that we’re asking people to gather on a Monday night in February and do all of this work, and if the judge rules in (plaintiffs’) favor, anything we decide on could be null and void.”

First-year OESU superintendent Emilie Knisley said the Senate likely won’t address HB39 until after Mello’s injunction ruling and acknowledged that proceedings seem unconventional.

“It’s a strange order of events,” Knisley said in a Thursday phone interview. “There’s a possibility of having to do this all over again. But if the new district does go forward, July 1 is going to come quickly.”

In an emailed statement, Fisher said the Agency of Education’s warning of the meetings was a matter of following the requirements of Act 46 as imposed by the State Board of Education.

“The Agency complies with the law as it currently stands, rather than changes that might become effective if the Court or the General Assembly acts at some time in the future,” Fisher wrote. “Currently, the State Board’s order is the law.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.