Local officials are blaming a legislative oversight for allowing village residents to vote in an election last month that was supposed to only be open to town-outside-the-village residents.
The mishap stems back to Act 46, the landmark school merger law under which the Essex Westford School District was created, according to Essex Jct. Rep. Dylan Giambatista, who sits on the House Education Committee.
Giambatista said the 2015 law used language from old statutes that applied to union high schools when addressing governance for newly unified districts.
“It often happens that when you recycle legal language, there are sometimes unforeseen complications or unintended consequences,” he said.
Giambatista requested a redraft of sections in Act 46 that deal with elections to unified boards, but the Vt. Agency of Education said it didn’t have the resources for a complete cleanup at the time. He instead asked for limited language to target EWSD’s situation, and attorneys for the AOE and House Education Committee drafted language that was included in last year’s omnibus education bill.
But the law still contained language that undermined the legislative fix, so the school board’s legal counsel recommended the district ask individual municipalities to warn the vote.
The problem: The town of Essex covers village residents, too, so when incumbent Liz Subin sought re-election for a seat designated for residents in the former Essex Town School District, her name appeared on town ballots distributed in both the village and the town-outside-the-village voting places, even though she only represents the latter.
Subin was unopposed, meaning the extra 372 votes she received from village voters did little more than boost her total tally. But theoretically, with the election open to the entire town, a village resident could have sought and won election to the school board for a seat designated for town-outside-the-village residents.
Martha Heath, school board chairwoman and Westford resident, acknowledged the error in comments to the selectboard last month and said the school board should have reviewed the ballots before the elections.
“We won’t make that mistake in the future,” she said.
Still, she points to the unified district’s articles of agreement, which prescribe proportional representation on the school board that includes two residents from Westford, four from the village and four from the town-outside-the-village.
“Frankly, if there had been a contest for school director, we would have challenged the election,” Heath said. “But there wasn’t any reason to, since that outcome would have been the same.”
Selectwoman Irene Wrenner, meanwhile, who emailed Giambatista with concerns on voting day, asked for a concrete fix that preserves the seat for town-outside-the-village residents.
“Promises are promises,” she said about the district representation. “People voted on [the school merger] for that reason.”
Giambatista has worked with the Senate Education Committee this session to patch up the loophole. Considered temporary, that bill will expire in 2020 to allow the AOE and the legislature to perform a comprehensive review and cleanup of some sections of Act 46. Giambatista said the legislature could then extend the sunset, if necessary.
“Longer term, we need to work with the [governor’s] administration to make sure we’re doing a better job so that schools around the state, and their newly unified boards, have the proper election process,” he said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Liz Subin’s name appeared on both village and town ballots during the April school election. Her name appeared only on town ballots, which were distributed in both the village and town. Also, a sentence stating village residents voted in an election that was supposed to only be open to town residents should have read: “town-outside-the-village residents.” And a quote from Irene Wrenner was modified for clarity. We regret the errors.