Voters in half a dozen Vermont towns, from right down Route 100 to the southeast corner of the state, will bring school merger divorce into the ballot booth next week. Stowe might take up the issue in the coming months.
The four towns in the Windham Southeast School District — Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney — vote next Tuesday whether to dissolve their merged district. That district was formed in 2019 by mandate of the Vermont Board of Education the previous fall.
That’s the same mandate that brought about the forced merger of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts, a move that the three Lamoille County towns had fought against for more than a year. Some of the people involved in that fight, many of them former school board members from (less than two years ago) when Stowe had its own board, see an opportunity to take it up again.
Richard Bland, a former board member and one of the leading voices against the forced merger, told the Stowe selectboard Monday that, come next week, nine towns in Act 46 mergers will have voted whether or not to leave those merged districts. He said the state has been silent on the votes, creating a gray area in the law, and it’s prudent to move quickly to have townspeople’s voices heard.
“This is a vacuum,” Bland said. “I would submit to you that a vote delayed is, in this instance, a vote denied.”
Closer to home, Moretown also has a town meeting article asking voters if the town should withdraw from the Harwood school district. And the Addison County town of Ripton wants to leave its supervisory union, amid chatter that the town elementary school might be on the chopping block.
These could all provide a Town Meeting Day litmus test on how the state will handle towns voting to leave their merged districts — in the case of Harwood, merger was voluntary; not so in Windham Southeast.
Bland suggested that Stowe High School losing its vaunted place atop the U.S. News and World Report list of best schools in Vermont and the school nixing AP classes this year — although Peoples Academy got to keep those higher-level courses — are results of having less local control as part of a merged district.
There are seven people on the Lamoille South board, three each from Stowe and Morristown and one from Elmore, which leaves Stowe as the minority town should the Elmore and Morristown representatives align in their decisions.
Former school board member Leigh Pelletier said her oldest two children both graduated from Stowe High School, but she and her husband have enrolled their youngest kid in private school because of the AP classes decision, “something no other high school in Vermont was doing.”
Pelletier said her family is not alone, citing a decline in local student enrollment higher than the state average.
“To give some context as to how dire our hemorrhaging of students has been, even the Burlington school district, where their high school was shut down for most of the school year due to serious air quality issues, has a smaller percentage decline in enrollment than us,” Pelletier said.
Jim Brochhausen, yet another former Stowe School Board member, said it’s been even more dire in Elmore and Morristown, where students are flocking to private Bishop Marshall School. He said the Catholic school used to have to take to social media to recruit students; now it has a waiting list.
“These kids just didn’t vaporize,” Brochhausen said. “They went someplace else.”
Selectboard chair Lisa Hagerty said it’s not clear if those students left the public schools because of the merger or rather for pandemic-related reasons, such as being in the school five days a week, like Bishop Marshall has tried to do.
George Wheelwright said if the state of Vermont had decided to merge municipal governments to make them more efficient, as is the goal of Act 46 with schools, people in those towns “would be up in arms.”
“We need to continue playing with our neighbors, being neighborly and helping each other out, but the joint school board has not worked out,” Wheelwright said.
Sara Percy Opel said she graduated from Stowe High almost 20 years ago, and her son is now a freshman there. She said the school “has gone downhill” since the merger, and she wondered if that would have been the case with a school board dedicated just to Stowe.
“I do wonder if, having the individual school boards that we used to have, the schools could have been more tailored toward their demographic with their children,” she said.
Vote may be inevitable
“We are not opposed to it. Haven’t been,” Hagerty said of the suggestion that the town is reticent to put merger divorce to a vote. “We would like to have an orderly process so that whatever we do is done with integrity and is well informed by all parties.”
Emily Rosenbaum said the selectboard went through “an exhaustive process” when it came to putting to voters the question of whether to pay more than $6 million for sidewalk improvements and powerline burial in the village. She said such deliberation ought to take place with any talk of decoupling from Lamoille South.
Selectboard chair Billy Adams said he understands there is a small window of opportunity for Stoweites to make some noise, and he predicts they would “overwhelmingly” vote to withdraw from the union. His concern is what happens next; he pointed to Great Britain’s messy attempts to secede from the European Union as a cautionary tale.
“My concern is that we don’t want to get ourselves into a Brexit scenario, where we focus on the vote and we don’t really organize and concern ourselves with what happens after the vote,” Adams said.
He said it appears that Stowe voting to leave the merged district would trigger follow-up votes in Elmore and Morristown within 90 days, and that clock would tick fast.
“Ninety days is a very short period of time to possibly convince our neighbors that this is good for them as well as it is good for us,” Adams said.
Hagerty said it’s important to know what’s next, and not just simply go back to the old Stowe school district structure, which “didn’t fly back then.” She said school governance isn’t the only thing that has changed in the past couple of years; the pandemic will change the way schools operate, too.
“I hope that, in this process, what we recommend going forward with is some sort of vision for the future that is informed, not only by our experience as a town, but as our experience of people who have just fast forwarded through COVID,” Hagerty said.
The next step: the town’s attorney will weigh in at the March 8 selectboard meeting on the legalities of putting merger divorce to a vote.