Vt. judge rules against districts in school merger lawsuit

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) A group of 33 school districts fighting forced mergers under Act 46 will be appealing their case to the Vermont Supreme Court.

In a decision this week, a Franklin County judge ruled against the districts, including the issue of taking on debt. Lawyers for the districts had argued that forcing towns in Washington County with no school debt, like Worcester and Calais, to take on the bonded debt of others schools in the newly created Washington Central Unified Union School District, violated the State Constitution. Superior Court Judge Robert Mello disagreed, calling the districts' argument of the merger transaction "flawed."

"School district mergers do not result in the direct imposition of one municipality's debts on another municipality; existing debt is transferred to the newly created trustee school district," Mello wrote.

In an April ruling, Mello also threw out other arguments in the case made by the districts.

The 2015 law was designed to save costs and expand opportunities for students by consolidating school districts. There were some financial incentives to districts that voluntarily merged. Many took advantage but others submitted "alternate governance" proposals, which were allowed under the law. But the State Board of Education rejected most of those last fall and opted for their own plan.

In a separate decision Wednesday, Mello also dismissed a similar case brought by the Huntington district.

Vermont Education Secretary Daniel French in a statement Thursday praised the ruling. “It confirms the work of the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education in implementing what has been arguably one of the most complex education policies enacted by the General Assembly in 140 years," he said.

With state lawmakers last month unable to agree on delaying the mergers, the districts are now asking the high court to halt the merger until the case is decided.