BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — Northeast Windham Superintendent Chris Pratt is in an unusual situation for a school administrator. In 19 days three of the four school districts he oversees will no longer legally exist, nor will their elementary school budgets for the 2019-20 school year. The meeting to approve a merged district budget for Athens, Grafton and Westminster has been in recess since April, and while the three towns recently formed a transitional board, Pratt does not believe that transitional board has the legal authority to approve a budget.
“The situation is complicated,” Pratt said in a phone interview yesterday. “But I want the community to know that the board and my office are doing everything we can to ensure our teachers needs are being met and that we are keeping our students safe and educated.”
The Act 46 standoff in brief
Last year the Vermont Agency of Education ordered Athens, Grafton and Westminster to consolidate their school districts into a single unified district, and denied a proposal in November that would have allowed the districts, along with Rockingham, to remain separate. In April the districts held a special meeting, under protest, for their voters to approve a merged district budget, but instead of approving a budget the public voted to recess the meeting until the state’s attorney general responded to their appeal.
Despite several attempts to elicit a decision from the attorney general, Pratt said that the attorney general has not issued a response. With Athens, Grafton, and Westminster also part of a 33-town lawsuit against Vermont over the constitutionality of Act 46, their merged board will likely remain in recess until either the state supreme court or the attorney general renders a decision.
Navigating between boards and schools
“As a superintendent I have to follow Act 46,” Pratt said.
While Pratt serves the transitional school board representing the new Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District, he has notified both the board and state education department that the board’s actions do not represent his own position on the Act 46 dispute.
He and the board both want to resolve this situation quickly and move forward, Pratt said. But they have differing paths to that end. While supporting the board’s needs and carrying out their requests and directives, Pratt’s priority is always the students.
“Even with everything going on our focus needs to be on education,” Pratt said. “We’re busy making adult-based decisions for our schools, but our focus should be student-based decisions.”
Addressing summer funding and health insurance
Last week the teachers union, Windham Northeast Education Association, sent a letter to Ed Banks, chair of the school board, expressing worry about whether the lack of budget after June 30 would impact summer programs or teacher’s ability to order supplies for the fall. The teachers also worried whether the loss of Health Equity.
District Business Director Edie Cole also reported last week that Athens has a $43,000 deficit in the current school year and Grafton may have a $2,000 deficit. The district requires $63,000 to operate through the summer. Grant money already covers funding for summer staff and faculty paychecks and taxes are paid through July 18.
Pratt said today that with a transitional board in place banks can provide a needed line of credit to cover expenses. There is still concern over whether the state will withhold grant money from the district while it is not in compliance with Act 46, though Pratt doubts the state will do that.
As for health insurance the board reported last week that the one of district’s current health insurance third-party providers, Health Equity, does not partner with merged school districts. Pratt said, however, that losing Health Equity will not affect teacher insurance. The only affected staff are those with health savings or reimbursement accounts, which includes about six individuals. Pratt also said the district has other options it can pursue to acquire a different third party provider.
Can the transitional board propose a budget?
On Tuesday the school board announced a warning for July 15, asking for voters to approve a district operating budget for the 2019-20 school year of $6,959,645.23.
Whether that will happen or not remains in question.
Pratt and the school board have different attorneys, and those attorneys disagree about the transitional board’s authority to propose a budget. According to Pratt, the transitional school board contends that Act 46 grants the transitional board the same authority as an acting board. Pratt’s attorneys, however, informed him that the Act 46 law stops short of giving fiscal power to a transitional board.
“We have two different interpretations without a response yet from the state,” Pratt said.
Pratt said he hopes to have more information when the board meets tonight for a special meeting at 5 p.m. at Bellows Falls Union High School.