It’s been an extremely busy week at the State House. Action regarding Act 46 was high on the list for some of us and the Agriculture and Forestry Committee spent time at the Farm Show at the Champlain Valley Expo Center.
On Wednesday, several legislators were asked to provide introductory testimony for our bills regarding Acts 46 and 49. I introduced H.78, which is an act that proposes to place a moratorium on school district mergers ordered by the State Board of Education until legal issues are adjudicated.
Much of my testimony focused the merits of the legal complaint that was filed and the reasons why it is just commonsense to delay forced mergers. Excerpted below is some of the testimony; the entire piece it can be found at the legislative website – www.legislature.vermont.gov – under Committees, click on Education, Witness, and Carolyn Partridge.
“Among other issues the Appellants challenge the validity of the Agency’s “default Articles of Agreement” which purport to permit the new union district boards to transfer debt and funds before June 30, 2019. Real estate must all be conveyed no later than June 30th. The parties also challenge the validity of the powers of a new, unelected transitional board, which claims to have the power to negotiate contractual agreements, spend taxpayer dollars, borrow funds, and to exercise municipal power in all planning, transitional, and other related duties prior to July 1st. The Agency of Education will be beginning a process to co-mingle capital reserves, debts, other liabilities and assets in these districts. Boards that may, ultimately, be deemed illegal will have begun to make staffing decisions, contract decisions, even borrowing decisions.”
“If elections for new involuntarily merged districts are held, they will be warned by an unelected transitional board, something that Vermont has never ever seen before. It is truly unprecedented for a state agency to have INVENTED an election process that is nowhere found in statute. The process for counting and reporting votes in such an election is entirely invented by the Agency and has no basis in statute. As that process goes forward it may be the subject of further litigation. Because that process proposes to commingle and dilute the votes of individual towns it will be extremely difficult to remedy the harm to voting rights which would be a constitutional harm.”
“The Vermont Statutes mandate that Articles of Agreement for new unions allow existing districts the right to vote on the transfer of debt and property. Neither Act 46 nor Act 49 ever repealed the voting requirements with respect to Articles of Agreement. The Agency of Education, in their default Articles of Agreement, which weren’t sent through rulemaking, ignored existing statutes that were never amended or repealed – existing statutes that involve a fundamental right – the right to vote with respect to the transfer of debt and property. The Agency, itself, informed the Board that there wouldn’t be time for forced mergers to adopt anything but the default Articles. Without the General Assembly’s explicit authorization, no agency has authority to re-write laws, particularly where they relate to voting rights. That is the duty and responsibility of Vermont’s elected representatives in the General Assembly. There is another issue involving small schools’ grants that even the Agency is asking the General Assembly to look at. It is imperative that the General Assembly re-visit these issues.”
The timeline allowed from the time of the State Board of Education’s order on Nov. 30, 2018 to having a budget warned and voted on at Town Meeting on March 5, 2019 was just not adequate. A former counsel for the Agency of Education advised the Windham School Board that the rule of thumb for implementing a major change like this was not followed, adequate time was not allowed, and we are witnessing the results.
An opportunity arose to amend the Budget Adjustment Bill with the desired language for a one-year delay in forcing involuntary mergers. An agreement was reached with the Speaker that if Budget Adjustment was left alone, there would be an opportunity to get a bill out of committee one way or another. As of Friday afternoon, the Education Committee was still working on a solution, though a very clean, straight-forward bill, H.39, which would allow a one-year delay, was passed adversely out of the committee. It would be nice if we could develop a bill that everyone would feel comfortable with – hopefully, we will see that on Tuesday when we return to the State House.
Wednesday evening, a team from House Ag and Forestry drove to the Champlain Valley Expo Center to participate in the Capitol Cook-off. Organized by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, the Cook-off is an effort to highlight local food and products. It coincides with the Local Vendor night and it is always a delight to look at the various products people have for sale. This year’s wares included cheese, meat, wine, spirits, honey, ice cream, maple, fiber, and yarn to name just a few.
Three Cook-off teams, one each from the House, Senate, and Agency, compete to produce a dish that uses the most local products including a secret protein source. This year the secret ingredient was dairy, so cheese, cream, butter, and milk were all available as well as a pantry of common products. Our four-member teams were joined by one young person from a local Jr. Iron Chef team. Local members on our team were Rep. Tom Bock from Chester and Rep. Kelly Pajala from Londonderry. The fantastic news was that the House reclaimed the coveted trophy, which is sitting beautifully on our display shelves.
The next day we returned to the Farm Show for a discouraging dairy update, which was ironically interrupted by an emergency evacuation due to a fire in a storage area. The dairy banquet did go on as scheduled and it was great to see so many hard-working dairy farmers in attendance on a bitterly cold, windy day.
On a final note, it was a week for odd occurrences due to the extreme cold – a water main broke in Montpelier so many of us were subject to a “boil water” order. I thought about the people of Flint, Michigan, who had to use bottled water for years and I was thankful that our situation only lasted for a few days.