Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., No. 2019-185

Docket NºNo. 2019-185
Citation2020 VT 52
Case DateJuly 10, 2020
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

2020 VT 52

Athens School District et al.
v.
Vermont State Board of Education et al.

No. 2019-185
No. 2019-241

Supreme Court of Vermont

January Term, 2020
July 10, 2020


NOTICE: This opinion is subject to motions for reargument under V.R.A.P. 40 as well as formal revision before publication in the Vermont Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions by email at: JUD.Reporter@vermont.gov or by mail at: Vermont Supreme Court, 109 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05609-0801, of any errors in order that corrections may be made before this opinion goes to press.

On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Civil Division

Robert A. Mello, J.

David F. Kelley, Craftsbury Common, Stephen F. Coteus and Nicholas A.E. Low of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, Montpelier, and Ines McGillion of Ines McGillion Law Offices, PLLC, Putney, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, and David Boyd and Eleanor L.P. Spottswood, Assistant Attorneys General, Montpelier, for Defendants-Appellees.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Robinson, Eaton, Carroll and Cohen, JJ.

¶ 1. REIBER, C.J. Plaintiffs—a number of independent school districts, school boards, parents, students, and citizens—challenge the implementation of Act 46, as amended by Act 49, regarding the involuntary merger of school districts. The Legislature enacted those laws in 2015 and 2017, respectively, to improve educational outcomes and equity by designing more efficient school governance structures in response to long-term declining student enrollment and balkanized educational governance and delivery systems. In separate decisions, the civil division

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dismissed several counts of plaintiffs' amended complaint and then later granted defendants'1 motion for summary judgment on the remaining counts. In these two consolidated appeals, plaintiffs argue that: (1) the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education failed to carry out the plain-language mandate of Act 46; and (2) the Board's implementation of the law, as manifested in its final order, violated other statutes in Title 16 and several provisions of the Vermont Constitution. We conclude that the Agency's and Board's implementation of the law was consistent with the challenged Acts and other statutes in Title 16, did not result from an unlawful delegation of legislative authority, and did not violate any other constitutional provisions. Accordingly, we affirm the civil division's decisions.

I. The Law

¶ 2. Before addressing plaintiffs' arguments, we review the relevant law. In response to declining student enrollment and a large number of independent school districts, the Legislature passed acts in 2010 and in 2012 to incentivize voluntary mergers of school districts. See 2009, No. 153 (Adj. Sess.), §§ 1-4 (making legislative findings,2 establishing voluntary school district merger program, and setting forth financial incentives for merging); 2011, No. 156 (Adj. Sess.), §§ 8, 13, 15-17 (amending Act 153 and establishing conditions for modified unified union school districts). The voluntary merger incentives available in these Acts led to a minimal decline in the number of school districts from 276 to 267. See D. French, Vt. Agency of Educ., Report on Act

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46 of 2015 14 (Jan. 2019), https://education.vermont.gov/sites/aoe/files/documents/edu-legislative-report-act46-merger-activity-2019.pdf [https://perma.cc/ZAS8-AV8Y].

¶ 3. In 2015, the Legislature passed Act 46. See 2015, No. 46. In support of the Act, the Legislature found that: (1) Vermont's K-12 student population had declined from 103,000 in 1997 to 78,300 in 2015; (2) "[t]he number of school-related personnel had not decreased in proportion to the decline in student population"; (3) during that same period, increased poverty, mental health needs, and drug addiction required the "public schools to fulfill an array of human services functions"; (4) given the thirteen different types of school district governance structures in the state, "elementary and secondary education in Vermont lack[ed] cohesive governance and delivery systems"; (5) as a result, many school districts in Vermont were "not well-suited to achieve economies of scale" and lacked "the flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources"; (6) a 1999 law enacted to protect small school districts from large tax increases due to declining student populations had "inflated the equalized pupil count in some districts by as much as 77 percent, resulting in artificially low tax rates in those communities"; (7) national literature indicated that the optimal student population for student learning is 300-500 for elementary schools and 600-900 for high schools; (8) national literature indicated "that the optimal size for a school district in terms of financial efficiencies is between 2,000 and 4,000 students"; (9) seventy-nine Vermont school districts had an average daily student population of one hundred or less; (10) the intent of the Act was not to close small schools, "but rather to ensure that those schools have the opportunity to enjoy the expanded educational opportunities and economies of scale that are available to schools within larger, more flexible governance models"; and (11) having "multiple public schools within a single district not only supports flexibility in the management and sharing of resources, but it promotes innovation," such as developing "a specialized focus, which, in turn, increases opportunities for students to choose the school best suited to their needs and interests." Id. § 1.

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¶ 4. In light of these findings, the Legislature stated that, by enacting Act 46, it intended "to move the State toward sustainable models of education governance." Id. § 2. It further stated that Act 46 was designed to encourage local decisions and actions that: (1) "provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide"; (2) help students to achieve or exceed state education quality standards; (3) "maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff"; (4) "promote transparency and accountability"; and (5) "are delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value." Id.

¶ 5. We now turn to the relevant substantive sections of Act 46. Under § 5, by July 2019, the State was to "provide educational opportunities through sustainable governance structures designed to meet the goals set forth in Sec. 2 of this act pursuant to one of the models described in this section." Id. § 5(a). The section then defines what is a "[p]referred structure" and indicates when an "[a]lternative structure"—defined as "a supervisory union with member districts"—may meet the State's goals. Id. § 5(b)-(c). The preferred educational governance structure is a school district that: "(1) is responsible for the education of all resident prekindergarten through grade 12 students; (2) is its own supervisory district; (3) has a minimum average daily membership [defined, in relevant part, by § 4001(1) of Title 16 as full-time equivalent enrollment of students who are legal residents of the district] of 900; and (4) is organized and operates according to one of the [following] four most common governance structures": operates the schools for all resident pre-K-12 students; operates schools for all resident pre-K-8 students and pays tuition for all resident 9-12 students; operates schools for all resident pre-K-6 students and pays tuition for all resident 7-12 students; or operates no schools and pays tuition for all pre-K-12 students. Id. § 5(b).

¶ 6. Where the preferred structure is not "possible or not the best model to achieve Vermont's education goals in all regions of the State," an alternative structure—"a supervisory

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union composed of multiple member districts, each with its separate school board"—"can meet the State's goals, particularly if" (1) the member districts are collectively responsible for educating all resident pre-K-12 students; (2) "the supervisory union operates in a manner that maximizes efficiencies through economies of scale and the flexible . . . sharing of nonfinancial resources among the member districts"; (3) "the supervisory union has the smallest number of member school districts practicable . . ."; and (4) "the combined average daily membership of all member districts is not less than 1,100." Id. § 5(c).

¶ 7. Section 6(a) of Act 46 sets forth the conditions that a newly formed district had to meet on or before July 1, 2017, to receive the enhanced tax incentives in § 6(b). Section 7(a) sets forth the conditions that a newly formed district had to satisfy on or before July 1, 2019, to receive the tax incentives in § 7(b). Section 8 concerns the Board of Education's evaluation of proposals, including those submitted under §§ 6-7, to create a newly formed union school district, to determine if the proposal is designed to create a sustainable governance structure that meets the goals set forth in § 2. Under § 8(b), the Board may approve a supervisory union that is an alternative structure only if the proposal (1) is the "best means" of meeting the § 2 goals in that "particular region," and (2) "ensures transparency and accountability," including "in relation to the supervisory union budget, which may include a process by which the electorate votes directly whether to approve the proposed supervisory union budget."

¶ 8. Section 9 requires a district school board that has a governance structure different from the preferred structure identified in § 5(b) or that did not expect to have such a structure in place before July 1, 2019, to take the following actions on or before November 30, 2017: (1) evaluate its current ability to meet or exceed the § 2 goals; (2) meet with the boards of one or more other districts to discuss ways to promote the § 2 goals...

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  • Crogan v. Pine Bluff Estates, 20-247
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • June 11, 2021
    ...its subject matter, effects and consequences, as well as the reason and spirit of the law." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 19, 212 Vt. ––––, 237 A.3d 671 (quotation omitted).I. Facts and Procedural History¶ 3. The material facts are undisputed. At the time of the......
  • Billewicz v. Town of Fair Haven, 20-173
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    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • March 26, 2021
    ...to legislative intent, we seek to harmonize statutes and not find conflict if possible." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 30, 212 Vt. ––––, 237 A.3d 671 (quotation omitted). "Longstanding rules of statutory construction counsel that a specific statute dealing with ......
  • Billewicz v. Town of Fair Haven, No. 2020-173
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • March 26, 2021
    ...to legislative intent, we seek to harmonize statutes and not find conflict if possible." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 30, ___ Vt. ___, 237 A.3d 671 (quotation omitted). "Longstanding rules of statutory construction counsel that a specific statute dealing with t......
  • In re Benson Rd. Site Plan & Cond. Use Application, 20-ENV00023
    • United States
    • Vermont Superior Court of Vermont
    • December 2, 2021
    ...104 (1993). Further, we seek "to harmonize statutes and not find conflict if possible." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vermont State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 30. If it is not possible to harmonize the statute, one way to resolve conflict is to by giving specific and more recent statutes regarding ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
9 cases
  • Crogan v. Pine Bluff Estates, 20-247
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • June 11, 2021
    ...its subject matter, effects and consequences, as well as the reason and spirit of the law." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 19, 212 Vt. ––––, 237 A.3d 671 (quotation omitted).I. Facts and Procedural History¶ 3. The material facts are undisputed. At the time of the......
  • Billewicz v. Town of Fair Haven, 20-173
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • March 26, 2021
    ...to legislative intent, we seek to harmonize statutes and not find conflict if possible." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 30, 212 Vt. ––––, 237 A.3d 671 (quotation omitted). "Longstanding rules of statutory construction counsel that a specific statute dealing with ......
  • Billewicz v. Town of Fair Haven, No. 2020-173
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • March 26, 2021
    ...to legislative intent, we seek to harmonize statutes and not find conflict if possible." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 30, ___ Vt. ___, 237 A.3d 671 (quotation omitted). "Longstanding rules of statutory construction counsel that a specific statute dealing with t......
  • In re Benson Rd. Site Plan & Cond. Use Application, 20-ENV00023
    • United States
    • Vermont Superior Court of Vermont
    • December 2, 2021
    ...104 (1993). Further, we seek "to harmonize statutes and not find conflict if possible." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vermont State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 30. If it is not possible to harmonize the statute, one way to resolve conflict is to by giving specific and more recent statutes regarding ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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