As The Valley Reporter went to press on March 23, the Act 46 study committee was slated to discuss plans to advocate for an affirmative vote on accelerated merging of local school districts.
At the group’s recent March 9 meeting, members questioned whether the group should, or could, advocate strongly for the success of an accelerated version of the merger, which would take effect sooner than the statewide 2019 consolidation and come with financial incentives.
Their advocacy efforts would include a communication plan, including the creation of “story cards,” which would outline the benefits and losses for each town with the accelerated merger and may include mailers and newspaper inserts. During a February 18 study committee meeting, members discussed distributing signs that read “Rock the vote, don’t block the vote,” and “Vote yes for Act 46.”
Warren representative Alycia Biondo said that community members were concerned that the committee is “one sided” – failing to present all possible options for Valley schools.
Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease said that the nine supervisory unions in Vermont that are further ahead in the process of consolidating school management and budgets supported the merger. “Yes, they advertised, and yes, they went forward that way. They took those positions,” she said.
Moretown representative Gabe Gilman said, “Our statutory task is to make a recommendation.” He added, “I don’t think we should be ashamed to do that.”
Waitsfield representative and Act 46 study committee vice chair Christine Sullivan told members, “You’re not telling them how to vote. You’re saying, ‘This is why I’m going to vote for it and this is why you should vote for it.’ But it’s still their decision to make.”
Warren representative Jen Watkins replied, “A ‘vote yes’ ad is telling someone that they should vote yes.”
Biondo added that she believed the purpose of the study committee was “to get informed – not to push for one way or the other,” but Thompson disagreed. “It was to become informed, be objective and then come to a position. It wasn’t just to gather information and do nothing with it.”
Scheffert Nease said that the WWSU received a $20,000 grant from the state and $16,500 of that went “to the project.” Costs for legal fees will exceed the remainder of the grant, so each school board contributed $3,500 – with the exception of Waterbury, which contributed $7,000. Those contributions will also cover advertising.
The total of school contributions and the state grant totals $44,500. Biondo said that the committee never agreed that school board funds – which are essentially tax dollars – would be used to fund advertisements that seem less than objective.
Scheffert Nease said that the committee did not know that they would advocate for the accelerated merger in September when the committee formed and “this board was going to decide what to use it [the money] for.”
“Showing people graphs and numbers is clearly a good use of my tax dollars. I’m not sure that telling people what to do in their own minds is fair,” Watkins said. “I feel fairly conflicted about that.”
“I would rather give them [the voters] the info and let them make the decision, rather than sell them something, in any situation,” she added.
“You do need to get some clarity around that,” Scheffert Nease told committee members. “You can do whatever you choose to do, but I don’t believe that it’s illegal to use the money that we’ve put together for this committee to forward the ball of the committee.”
“It is tricky,” said executive committee member Dale Smeltzer. “It can be a sensitive issue and you can end up turning off some voters by them perceiving that you’re spending – or wasting – money advertising for a certain cause.”
The Valley Reporter has reached out to several state organizations seeking clarification on whether it is appropriate for schools boards or groups such as the Act 46 committee to use public funds to advocate for a yes or no vote. Nicole Mace at the Vermont School Boards Association did not return multiple calls seeking comment, although a co-worker of hers did call back and suggest legal personnel at the Vermont Agency of Education. The answer from the agency of education was that it was a good question and one that they were surprised had not been asked yet. The Valley Reporter has also reached out to Vermont secretary of state seeking clarification and a response was not received as of press time.
The committee was meeting as The Valley Reporter went to press on March 23. They will host a series of public forums on March 31 and April 27 at the Harwood Union High School library at 6:30 p.m., May 11 at the Thatcher Brook Primary School gym at 6:30 p.m., and May 25 at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield at 6:30 p.m.