Morristown’s and Elmore’s next steps in approving or denying Stowe’s vote earlier this year to leave the merged Lamoille South school district remain unclear. Whatever happens next, some Elmore residents want to add a simple message: keep our school open.
A small group of the lake town’s residents met a few times in June to talk about Elmore’s place in the equation, should Stowe be allowed to leave the district, according to Alan Van Anda, a resident with one child who recently graduated from third grade at The Elmore School and another one he hopes will one day attend the state’s last remaining one-room schoolhouse.
“We love that school very, very much, and that love has come from first-hand experience,” Van Anda said. “The Stowe vote has just presented us a great chance to talk about other things.”
One of those other things is a facilities study prepared for the Lamoille South district that was released in April; the recommendations trended toward shuttering The Elmore School.
The 101-page study, prepared during the first half of the pandemic by the New England School Development Council — at the cost of $18,000 — laid out five different options for how to use the schools in the three towns, everything from using all eight district-owned buildings to shutting down some of them, to building a shared high school for all three towns.
Of those five suggested scenarios, only one kept The Elmore School open. Van Anda said with only one seat on the seven-person school board, the deck could be stacked against Elmore.
“We basically don’t have a say in this,” he said.
So, this informal group of Elmore residents wants to make sure that, when it does come time for their town to vote on Stowe’s departure from Lamoille South, the town includes some sort of language on the ballot aimed at protecting the school and the lake town’s autonomy.
Van Anda said there was plenty of resistance in town to the initial merger of Elmore and Morristown into one district, with the first attempt defeated.
“And the second vote got contentious,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is create another community hubbub. We want to have (discussions) as neighbors, to have it as friends, just to talk.”
Lamoille South superintendent Ryan Heraty, who just started on the job July 1, said he has already been to visit the school, and when he came outside, there were some parents hanging out who shared their thoughts and concerns with him.
Heraty said he realizes the facilities study “caused a lot of concern” across the three towns. But he said nothing would be done to act on any of the scenarios without taking it to the people first.
“There’s a huge step that needs to take place before people would start going in that direction,” he said. “Questions like, is this a reality or not? And why was this done?”
Van Anda and others often speak in reverent tones about the one-room Elmore School. The students may only be in third grade when they graduate, but those third graders learn to be mentors for the younger kids, and they learn patience from being in the same room as them all day, too — not a lot of bullying in that kind of environment, he said.
“You come into this little village that’s already picturesque and you see the kids on the swing sets and it sets the tone,” he said. “I can’t imagine driving through that town and not seeing children there.”
Next steps still unclear
Stowe voted May 11 to withdraw from the merged Lamoille South district, on a vote of 1,068-464 in favor of leaving. It is still unclear what happens next, although it does appear clear that Morristown and Elmore need to weigh in at some point. Morristown town clerk Sara Haskins said she has still not received any guidance from the state on how to proceed.
There are dueling legal opinions on the validity of a vote to withdraw from the school district.
In March, the town of Stowe’s lawyer, Nina Atwood, said Act 46, the state’s school district consolidation law, allows for the merger divorce, if Stowe voters approved it and Elmore and Morristown later this year also allowed it.
“Regardless of the decision of the state board, it is our opinion that limiting the ability to withdraw by vote to only those towns which voluntarily merged (and prohibiting towns in forced mergers to remain merged) is discriminatory,” she wrote.
However, Emily Simmons, general counsel for the Vermont Agency of Education, opined April 9 that the law only allows towns that voted to form a union to pull out of a merged district.
Perhaps throwing water on that argument: the town of Westminster voted this spring to leave its school district, and the state board voted 8-0 to allow it. Like Stowe, Ripton was forced by that same state board to merge with its neighbors.
A third legal opinion is in the offing. The Lamoille South school district last month decided to get a third legal opinion from its own lawyers. Heraty said the merger issue was one of the first things he studied when he started, “because it is kind of the elephant in the room right now.”
Heraty said his main goal is to make sure of a smooth administrative transition and getting the schools back to normal after a very abnormal year and a quarter.
He said the district’s lawyers have not yet proffered an opinion on Lamoille South’s role in Stowe’s merger withdrawal.
“We are still in limbo,” he said.
This story has been updated. An earlier version of this story reported that Ripton, not Westminster, had been forced into a school district merger. Ripton has decided to leave its district, but it had originally entered into it voluntarily.