The Legislature has been considering how to handle the State Board of Education’s forced merger plan since they convened the second week in November. Many towns feel they were treated unfairly, having submitted alternative governance proposals in line with the Act 46 process. They felt so strongly, in fact, that more than 35 towns have joined multiple lawsuits challenging the law and, perhaps more importantly, the manner in which the State Board of Education has implemented it.
It is important to note that the State Board of Education has little statutory authority outside of responsibilities pertaining to Act 46 – it was originally envisioned as a non-elected panel to search for and put forward nominees for the Secretary of Education. In many cases this board completely ignored public votes – votes that towns were promised would allow them to control their own path in the merger process. Some of these votes garnered unanimous public support. When was the last time you heard of a unanimous public vote?
To remedy this situation, H.39 was introduced on January 17th to give districts caught up in the State Board of Education forced-merger plan an additional year to find a new structure that works best for their students, schools, and communities. The House passed a version of this bill the first week in February that would allow 25 districts to have an additional year. This bill would have allowed school boards – groups of volunteers with their own jobs, families, and obligations – the necessary time to do the complicated work of creating new budgets and governance structures.
The Senate worked on this bill until late March, determining that extensions should not be limited just to just the 25 districts proposed by the House, but rather that any district in the State Board’s forced-merger plan should be eligible for delay, provided they could demonstrate they were making good-faith efforts toward completing the merger process. This makes sense, as districts should have an adequate amount of time to determine a new governance structure. Under Act 46, districts were given two and a half years to come up with a governance plan. However, under the State Board of Education’s forced-merger plan, districts have to start over, but only have seven months to complete the same task.
Here’s where things start to break down. To rectify the differences between the House and Senate versions, a Conference Committee was called for. These committees are made up of members from both the House and Senate with the intent of negotiating a compromise between the two versions of a bill. The House chose to send the three people most opposed any form of a delay.
On April 26, House members came forward with a proposal that would allow for only 9 districts to qualify for delays – down from the 25 they originally proposed. This was a highly unusual position for conference committee negotiators to take. If you view the version passed by the House (25 extensions) and the version passed by the Senate (extensions for all) as parameters for the negotiations, proposing a compromise solution that allows only 9 extensions is way out of bounds. In response, the Chair of the Senate Education Committee accused the House members of negotiating in bad faith and is requesting the Conference Committee be disbanded and reestablished with new members. Hello, square one.
Another important thing to note here, a proposal very similar to the Senate bill was narrowly struck down on the House floor by only five votes. The Senate passed their version 26-3. This can be translated to mean that almost half of the House already supports a bill closer to the Senate version than that proposed by the three House conference committee members.
School boards are scrambling to deal with complex issues of mismatched governance structures, merged school budgets, unequal debt loads, curriculum disparities, and other thorny issues. All while trying to beat a clock that is a couple of ticks away from midnight. Yet the House conference committee members are playing political games. Enough is enough.
Residents in these affected towns should not stand for the permanent damage this might do to their schools and children. Further, the Speaker should not tolerate the political games being played here. She is supposed to represent the entire House body – the same charge that conference committees have. Yet, it has become clear that these particular committee members are not acting on behalf of the House as a whole and are no longer negotiating in good faith.
The Speaker should immediately nominate new representatives to the conference committee that will uphold their charge. This should be done swiftly so the Legislative process can finish running its course and districts caught up in the State Board of Education’s forced-merger plan can get back to educating their kids.