As the Dec. 7 referendum on whether Elmore will join neighboring Stowe in emancipating itself from the Lamoille South Unified Union School District approaches, coalitions are beginning to take shape on either side of the vote.
The group that brought the petition that prompted the vote in the first place has a primary concern: the autonomy needed to control the fate of Vermont’s last one-room schoolhouse, where Elmore’s students attend first, second and third grade.
Some are sounding a warning call, though, that a myopic fixation on preserving Elmore’s tradition will mean higher taxes, steeper education costs and less say in students’ education after the third grade.
Stowe’s overwhelmingly lop-sided vote, 1,068-464, in May to leave the school district has opened old wounds in Elmore and provoked anxiety of a kind not seen since 2015, when the town voted to merge its school district with Morristown’s.
Some cloying questions remain, not least of which is what exactly a post-Stowe school district will look like or what Elmore’s departure might mean for overall education expenses and taxes.
To address these questions and clear the air, Elmore will hold an informational meeting on the question of leaving the school district Tuesday, Nov. 30. The meeting will include representatives from petitioners and non-petitioners, an organizer of the petition, school district superintendent Ryan Heraty and a representative from the Vermont Agency of Education.
Elmore resident Bruce Malcolm filed the petition to put Elmore’s future in the Lamoille South school district on the ballot.
To him and the group of residents he represents, Stowe voting to leave the district “opened the gate” to new possibilities.
“I think that that’s one thing that’s kind of maybe getting lost a little bit,” he said. “I think this group of people that’s interested in exploring leaving the unified union, we’re looking for community discussion and input from people on where they think we should go from here.”
A primary concern for Malcolm is preservation of the Elmore School. In a facilities report for Lamoille South released in April that identified five different options for how to use the schools in its three towns, four of those options recommended the closure of the one-room schoolhouse.
This perceived broadside on the town’s beloved tradition came at a time when the community at large heavily relied on the school during the pandemic.
“Some of the freeform meetings we had this summer and during the year of COVID, having that one-room schoolhouse and the way it could operate a little bit independently, and having multiple age groups with kids taking care of each other,” Malcolm said. “It just heightened everybody’s awareness of what a big loss it would be. If we were to lose that, it really is the center of the community.”
Though Heraty, who just became superintendent this summer, said the Elmore School was in no immediate danger, the facilities report has Elmore residents like Malcolm spooked and looking to take control before it’s too late.
Another concern is the lack of representation and control that came with the forced merger of Stowe with Morristown and Elmore. At least when Elmore merged with Morristown, Malcolm pointed out, Elmore had some guarantees as to the continued existence of the Elmore School, guarantees that were left out of the forced merger with Stowe, he said.
Right now, Elmore has only a small voice on the district school board, just one of seven.
Malcolm said he and his group are still interested in maintaining a close relationship with Morristown and are simply looking for an educational environment where Elmore has more control over the decision-making process.
“The identity of the town is really structurally diminished. I mean, that’s just a fact,” he said. “Our goal was to get people talking about it.”
Costs of autonomy
Susan Southall, a resident of Elmore and one of three of the town’s listers, has thrown a bucket of cold water on the heady ideas of school autonomy and saving the Elmore School with what she sees as the financial reality of the situation.
Though Southall admitted that it’s impossible to know exactly how Elmore’s departure from the school district will affect taxes because no budget calculations have been released, she’s pessimistic.
According to her, all the reasons education taxes were higher prior to the Morrisville merger would remain should Elmore leave the district again.
Based on an estimate of information discussed in 2015, school taxes would increase by about 50 cents, or about $500 per $100,000, should Elmore leave.
“I can understand wanting to preserve the one-room schoolhouse,” Southall said. “After all, we’re the last one in the state, which is kind of neat. However, if we stay in a district as we are currently, the way we were starting in 2016 and merging with Morrisville — it had dropped our taxes considerably: 30 cents on the $100,000 assessment.”
Southall also argued that demanding autonomy over Elmore’s school would mean relinquishing control over how students are educated outside of the town — and how much the town is forced to pay for it.
“If we go our own way, we will have control of the spending at our own little schoolhouse for three grades,” she said, “but for 10 grades — kindergarten and 4 through 12 — we would have to send them someplace else. Sending them someplace else means you have to pay tuition to those towns at whatever rate they choose to charge us. And as a result, if we go our own way, we have no say at all about the school costs.”
Southall said she feared Elmore may end up like Ripton, a small town in Addison County that fought desperately to keep its school from closure in forced consolidation only to face the expensive prospect of special education, transportation and financial and data management and now may have to renege on its merger withdrawal.
“I think the Elmore School will stay open as long as they can have teachers who can handle three grades in the school and do it economically,” Southall said. “At whatever point the school becomes uneconomic to run, it will probably close.”
Malcolm pointed out what Southall admitted as well, that due to a lack of clear understanding as to what will happen in a variety of scenarios that may play out after the Dec. 7 vote, no one truly knows how Elmore’s potential departure could affect taxes in the town.
“I don’t think anyone is insensitive to the tax issue,” he said. “It was a big issue back in 2015 and it’s bound to be an issue again. Quite honestly, I think people are making projections on the taxes. I don’t know how they’re doing it, because we are not suggesting any particular arrangement.”
Other voices are urging the departure of Elmore from the school district as well. Flyers paid for by Save Our Schools, an informal Stowe-based organization advocating for schools to remove themselves from the Lamoille South Unified Union, have been delivered to Elmore residents.
The language contained in the flyer plays up the threat to the Elmore School and makes claims about Elmore residents paying for Stowe High School improvements and stresses the unfairness of three towns “sharing one checkbook.”
Elmore Selectboard chair Caroline DeVore, who has pledged impartiality on the subject, has urged others to weigh all the information carefully, including information that hasn’t yet been made available, before casting their vote.
She also believes that those who do work for the town should refrain from broadcasting their opinions from the position as a town official on the subject, just as she has done. (Southall has, for her part, not included the fact that she is a lister for the town in social media posts).
According to DeVore, the big-ticket concern for a small town like Elmore, aside from the school issue, is paying for a new town garage. For a town like Elmore, infrastructure is a matter of scale and every penny counts. As for the future of Elmore schools, she would like to see residents learn more before making a decision.
“I think more information that can be provided so that people really understand the implications of a vote either way, what it really means is important,” DeVore said. “I'll be honest, I don’t think people really understand it. I don’t think people understand. I don’t think people really know. And I think there are a lot of opinions out there.”
DeVore has sent one of her children to the Elmore School and hopes it will remain open, calling it part of the fabric of life in Elmore. She also foresaw that, no matter what happens with the vote, a tradition of cooperation with Morristown will continue.
“Elmore and Morrisville have a very long and very positive, cooperative background together,” she said. “So, I don’t really see that changing in either direction, as far as the vote goes. There’s a lot of history on this and my biggest hope is that people get answers to the questions that they have.”
This story has been updated to correct an error about Elmore's representation on the school board.
Despite sharing the same name, Save Our Schools, the organization advocating for schools to remove themselves from the Lamoille South Unified Union, is an informal Stowe-based organization and not related to the Save Our Schools group that advocated for the town of Ripton to leave its school district, as reported in the original story.