Merger Talks Stall

BERLIN — Some school districts on the fast track to merge will have to wait a little longer for clarification of a controversial aspect of the new consolidation law.

The State Board of Education voted Tuesday to table discussion of a motion that would have offered guidance to two potentially merging school districts if one offers school choice and the other does not.

The issue arose following a memo issued in July by Greg Glennon, the Agency of Education’s general counsel, who asked the State Board of Education to address what appears to be a conflict between existing law and Act 46 — which was approved by the Legislature and signed into law this year — that calls for the merger of most of the states nearly 300 school districts by 2020.

The potential for conflict occurs when two districts with opposing policies about school choice look to merge.

“This appears to be a case of the Legislature having spoken, but we aren’t sure what they have said,” Glennon wrote in a memo to the State Board of Education, asking for clarification.

In response, the board’s Governance Committee drafted a motion that would allow for a newly formed district to allow for both scenarios: tuition and school designation, as long as the compromise is spelled out in the newly formed district’s articles of agreement.

However, the State Board of Education voted Tuesday to table the vote, and referred the issue back to the Governance Committee, with the task of developing criteria for the goals of Act 46.

“I felt we needed to study the issue more closely,” said Sean-Marie Oller, he board’s vice chairwoman and the lone member of the Governance Committee not to vote in favor of the motion.

“There was some idea of, ‘Why would you want to put it in the articles of agreement and tie up the boards’ hands in the future at the local level?’” She said.

Oller also noted that expanding opportunities for tuition might inadvertently lead to the forced closure of schools, which is prohibited under Act 46.

“We are a board that is here for public education and we need to be mindful about dollars going outside of districts,” Oller said. “If you allow money to go outside the district, you might very well be forcing the closure of schools within that district.”

Board Chairman Stephan Morse, who voted in favor of the motion, said the conflict between the two laws is one that can be resolved.

“What we are trying to do is create a possibility of a school district to be formed where every student within that school district would have equal educational opportunities,” Morse said. “I take the opinion that if the people within an area come to the conclusion that that is what they want to do, we ought to honor that suggestion.”

Morse noted that some districts are waiting on the board to address the issue as they work to come up with merger plans by July 2016, which would allow them to take advantage of financial incentives.

“This is a very rapid process under that accelerated section of Act 46,” Morse said. “This all has to come together between now and next July, so I think this month, month-and-a-half delay is troublesome, but the Governance Committee will hopefully come back in September and give that guidance to all those proposed school districts.”

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