Rupert reconsidering Act 46 merger with Pawlet on Thursday

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RUPERT — The Act 46 school merger between Pawlet and Rupert faces yet another challenge, as Rupert will reconsider its "yes" vote next week.

An informational meeting will be held on Monday, and the vote will be held on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Rupert Town Hall. Only Rupert voters will be participating in the re-vote, and a "no" vote would scuttle the merger for both towns.

On Nov. 21, voters in Pawlet and Rupert both approved a merger of the two school districts, which already send their students to Mettawee Community School, as the Mettawee School District. Pawlet approved the merger by a 259 to 201 margin, while the margin in Rupert was just eight votes — 150 in favor to 142 opposed.

The petition seeking a reconsideration in Rupert was submitted three days before the Secretary of State was to certify the merger vote.

At issue in Rupert is the town's long-standing practice of designating nearby Salem, N.Y. as its high school, which would be replaced by a school choice tuition model if the merger is upheld. The long-standing connection between the towns has been cited by merger opponents as reason to continue as a separate district. Another is that Salem's tuition rate is a good deal less than the $15,130 average tuition rate for Vermont schools that the district would be obligated to pay to students choosing Vermont schools.

Under the merger, students would still be free to attend school at Salem or Granville, N.Y.

Through the current school year, the Pawlet and Rupert boards have approved enrollment at non-designated schools, and paid the tuition amount that is paid to designated schools in New York to non-designated schools. That has left a significant financial gap for families wanting to send students to Vermont schools instead of to Salem or Granville, and the State Board of Education tossed an earlier Act 46 merger proposal over designation, deeming it an equity issue for families wanting to send their students to a Vermont school.

If Rupert returns a no vote, the school boards in Rupert and Pawlet will have to present new plans to the Board of Education on how they plan to move forward. On Nov. 30, the board will issue a statewide plan for districts that did not merge under Act 46.

In the meantime, the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union will not be able to provide Rupert and Pawlet taxpayers with a budget for fiscal 2019 in time for town meeting. A special district meeting or meetings will have to be called in the spring for voters to approve a spending plan and tax rate.

"It's an unusual situation," BRSU superindentent Jackie Wilson said. "There was no way to move forward because we don't know who's ultimately going to be in charge."

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000 or at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com.

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