Stowe, Elmore-Morristown districts fight forced mergers in court

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ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) Lawyers were in court Monday arguing a forced merger under Act 46, the state's school governance consolidation law. Attorneys for the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe school districts want the case sent back to the State Board of Education because of mistakes made.

"This is not an attack on the entire Act 46 process. This is not a general attack on the final report, this is an attack on the particular decision that was made to force EMU and Stowe to merge," said Attorney William Clark, who argued before Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Mello that the State Board of Education's decision to merge the districts was unfair. "The state board's order forcing EMU and Stowe to merge cannot stand. In reaching it's decision, the state board relied on erroneous figures, failed to make findings required by law, and was motivated by impermissible political bias."

Clark says a main goal of Act 46 was to create districts with 900 students, but Elmore-Morristown already had 899, and Stowe is on track to hit 900 in two years. "EMU and Stowe has never disputed that merger is possible. What we've said is it's not necessary to meet the goals of the act," he said.

State attorney Eleanor Spottswood rejected that argument -- and others -- made Monday. "The state has broad power to oversee education governance. It's primarily the state's responsibility, not individual towns," she said.

Spottswood says the board followed appropriate procedures and the districts need relief from lawmakers -- not the court. "There was no procedural deficiency in the board's process," she said.

Judge Mello appeared skeptical of whether the state board seriously considered the districts' alternate consolidation plan. But Spottswood says the law doesn't require the board to do so once it determines the state plan is sufficient. "Once it found that the preferred structure met the goals of the act, it did not need to find whether the alternative structure would advance the goals of the act," she said.

Legislation to provide a delay in the forced merger appears to be stalled in the Statehouse as the House and Senate work to iron out competing bills.

Judge Mello recently ruled in another Act 46 case that the law is largely constitutional, so now Elmore-Morristown and Stowe wait to find out if their particular situation will be enough for Mello to step in.