By Heidi Scheuermann, February 14, 2019

The prior two weeks of the legislative session were a rollercoaster ride for me and the legislative effort to extend the deadline for the involuntary mergers ordered by the State Board of Education under Act 46.

Ultimately, I am pleased to report that a proposal to provide a merger deadline extension of one year to approximately half of the districts that are under orders to merge, including our Elmore-Morristown and Stowe School Districts, received overwhelming support from the Vermont House (134-10), and has now moved to the Senate for its consideration.

Unfortunately, my initial proposal the prior day (built upon my effort over the first four weeks of the session) to ensure the local school boards of each of the districts being forced to merge were given the opportunity to extend their deadline by one year was defeated in an extremely close vote.  In my view, and in the view of our very broad coalition of lawmakers from across the political spectrum, it was critical that all of the local districts be given the option of extending if they felt the need to do so.  After all, the communities being forced to merge are all in very different situations and at various points in the merger process, and those of us making the decision for them in Montpelier don’t know the realities on the ground in each of those communities.

In the end, the successful vote last week is good news for our local school districts and our hard-working boards.  That said, this House vote is just the first step in the legislative process. We now have to do all we can to be sure the Senate advances the bill.

To be clear, this was not an issue that House leadership and the House Education Committee wanted to take up at all.  But, a broad coalition of legislators from across the political spectrum came together to demand action, and we are grateful leadership ultimately agreed that it was an important discussion and debate to have.

And, while I would have preferred the approval of the proposal I put forward that allowed for local decision-making on the timing of the forced mergers, I am very pleased that the committee and the House, both overwhelmingly, understood the need for an extension in the case of EMUU-Stowe and others, and moved the bill forward.

It was also rewarding to see all members of the Lamoille County delegation in the House come together on this issue.  I was proud that we held the flag of rural Vermont high in this controversial debate.  I especially want to thank Morristown and Elmore Representative, Dave Yacovone, for his commitment and perseverance.  His impassioned plea to his Democratic colleagues in a private caucus, in addition to his work with leadership made a real difference in the effort.

As this Act 46 work has continued, there has also been some important activity in the House Energy and Technology Committee, the committee on which I serve.  While the first two weeks were spent on overviews of items, including various departments and division of state government, utilities, energy facilities, cellular and broadband entities, and more, we have delved more deeply into specific issues over the last two weeks.  From the decarbonization study and energy efficiency efforts, to electricity, information technology and broadband and cell phone deployment, our committee has been – and will continue to be – exceptionally busy.

Through this time, it has become abundantly clear (to those who hadn’t already realized) that one of the most critical issues facing Vermont – rural Vermont especially – is the lack of high-speed broadband access and cell phone coverage.  Many of us have known this challenge for many years, and even experience it firsthand.  But, it has historically been an incredibly difficult nut to crack in a rural state like Vermont.

I am pleased, therefore, that one of the highest priorities of our committee is to tackle this in a realistic and responsible way.  I will keep the people of this community and region posted as our efforts in this regard continue.