A full house gathered at Elmore Methodist Church Tuesday night to talk out the question of leaving the Lamoille South Unified Union school district and whether the vote is a golden opportunity to take control or a blind leap into a dangerous abyss.

But what was billed as an informational meeting meant to inform voters before a Dec. 7 vote provided little new information and, in fact, the unknowns about the vote only loomed larger by the end of the two-hour meeting.

Next Tuesday, Morristown and Elmore residents will either approve or reject a bid by Stowe to leave the district, and until the ballots from both towns are counted, the full ramifications of Elmore’s potential departure from the district remains unknowable.

The meeting, which was moderated by Jon Gailmor, gave three representatives from both sides of the question a cumulative 15 minutes each to make their case, followed by two advocates on either side of the school district departure issue in Stowe and a presentation from Lamoille South Superintendent Ryan Heraty.

A lengthy question and answer period followed, where residents on either side of the issue questioned vote advocates and Heraty extensively.

The state’s school district consolidation law, Act 46, forced the merger of the towns within the Lamoille South Supervisory Union into the Lamoille South Unified Union school district with one shared board. The impetus behind Act 46 was that consolidation would save the state in education spending.

Stowe overwhelmingly voted in May to leave the merged district 1,068-464.

Elmore and Morristown vote Dec. 7 on whether to approved Stowe’s withdrawal. Elmore is also deciding whether to form its own school district. Polls will be open from 8 a.m-7 p.m. at the town office.

Polls for Morristown’s special meeting are open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. in the Morrisville VFW building.

Case for and against

Petitioners who forced the Dec. 7 vote on whether Elmore should leave the Lamoille South school district — a move they’d very much like the town to take — first took the sanctuary stage.

Bruce Malcolm, Ann Marie Dryden and Kacey Burakowski all presented different reasons to leave the school district, but a common thread was the desire to maintain the current structure of the Elmore community and preemptively protect the last one-room schoolhouse in Vermont from potential closure.

Burakowski, a speech pathologist who has worked with various schools, said taxes will rise regardless of the school question since their appraised house values will likely soon go up. To her, the question was about the price communities spend on education and how smaller rural communities will likely continue to pay more than more densely populated areas.

“The Vermont Agency of Education has looked to a one-size-fits-all approach to solving our high-educational spending,” she said. “Vermont can become a leader of other states in allowing diversity by supporting small schools and creative funding pathways.”

Dryden expressed concern after the now-infamous Lamoille South facilities report spooked Elmore residents by identifying the closure of the Elmore School as a possible measure the district could take. She stressed that no action would be taken right away.

“We could take another year to do a study and then bring a proposal to the town,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in a year. If Stowe leaves, I don’t know where that leaves us or where that leaves our school. I would rather be ahead of the curve on that than behind it.”

After Malcolm reiterated that nothing would change immediately and a yes vote would give Elmore residents more control over their future, those in favor of remaining in the Lamoille South district made their case.

Urging residents to vote no were Warren West, Stuart Weppler and Susan Southall.

Southall argued that leaving the school district would increase taxes for Elmore residents, a calculation she’s made based on available information and her credibility as a decades-long resident of Elmore and a longtime lister.

Weppler — also a longtime resident who has served many roles in the town, including on different iterations of community school boards — stressed that leaving the district would not mean greater autonomy over education for Elmore residents.

“We will not regain control over our school spending by reverting to the independent school district,” he said. “Of course, school taxes are going to increase every year, but the fact remains that we will continue to pay less as part of the district as opposed to a standalone fixture.”

West, exuberant with a blond ponytail hung beneath a black beanie, took a walk before the altar as he stressed that Elmore needed a reality check and needed to recognize how little leverage it has in a situation filled with many unknowns, that leaving the school district will not give Elmore more power but simply alienate the neighbors it depends upon.

“We need to get ourselves educated by turning this ballot down,” he said. “It will not tell us we can’t continue this conversation. It will put us in a better position to have an ongoing conversation about the needs of the petitioners but saying yes puts us down a one-way road, no way out.”

Two representatives from Stowe, Jim Brochhausen and Marina Meerburg, made the case for either side from their town’s perspective.

Brochhausen enumerated all the ways he believed the merged school district had hampered Stowe, while Meerburg urged patience and advocated for further attempts to work out the district’s shared issues, which she believed were hindered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Brochhausen is associated with the Save Our Schools group in Stowe, which has been responsible for the bombardment of mailed flyers in Morristown and Elmore urging them to support Stowe’s — and now Elmore’s — departure from the Lamoille South school district.

When Heraty stood to offer the official perspective, he conceded that no one is certain what will happen if Stowe’s vote is approved by Morristown and Elmore, and no one is certain if Elmore would be allowed to depart the district even if it did vote to leave.

He detailed the ongoing legal battle between Stowe and the Vermont Agency of Education over their interpretation of what the law as written will allow, with Stowe claiming they have a right to leave the merged school district while the agency says they do not.

“So, the question may be, is it legal for this whole process to go through? If the town of Elmore does vote to allow Stowe to withdraw, will that be approved by the board of education? Will the board of education take that up? The answer is we don’t know. We’re not sure because it hasn’t been done before. Because the statute that we had certainly does not clearly articulate whether or not it’s legal, that would pertain to Elmore as well.” he said.

More questions

For an hour, Elmore residents presented both sides of the departure vote and Heraty with a slew of questions and comments.

When a questioner asked who would identify the possible organizational options for an independent Elmore school district, Dryden revealed the core group of leave advocates had already been talking to a consultant who would help provide potential options and their costs.

Heraty confirmed community groups would be responsible, with possible resources available.

In response to a question from Sharon Fortune about how an Elmore departure might affect school choice for children once they’ve graduated from the Elmore School, Heraty said it would be up to the board of education and there was no clear answer.

Of course, the question of the Elmore School’s closure was put directly to Heraty.

“What I can say is that I would never go on record and say that there would never be a group of people that would be pushing for the school to be closed to save money or something,” he said. “What I can tell you right now, though, is that the school board has been pretty clear that they have no motivation to pursue any of the options that we put forward in the building study.”

A relatively new Elmore citizen, three years out of Boston, asked Heraty about the differences between a unified union and a supervisory union school district, which the questioner compared to marriage and dating, respectively.

Heraty stressed the biggest differences being the creation of two separate school boards in a supervisory union while Burakowski chimed in that a supervisory union with other schools should still be on the table for a possibly independent Elmore.

West and others said the town of Ripton serves as an apocryphal warning for Elmore. Ripton successfully removed itself from the Addison Central School District but is now asking to be let back into the district after facing the cost of going it alone, they said.

Dryden pushed back on that assessment.

“I think using Ripton as a scare tactic isn’t fair to me,” she said. “I think they’re being very brave. They’re really courageous in trying to make this happen. I don’t think we have any less muster than that.”

To a characterization by West that voting no on Elmore’s departure would mean a continued conversation but voting yes meant “jumping off the cliff,” Elmore resident Allen Van Anda said, “We’re all neighbors as well as community members here. We might have a different vision of what’s going to happen, but we don’t know what’s going to happen because we don’t have those answers from the state.”

He predicted that the Legislature would look to clarify the confusion in the law in the upcoming session and now may be the last opportunity for Elmore to stake a claim.

“We have the ability to ensure that our school remains the school it has been for the past 100 years, that that piece of property remains the sole discretion of Elmore voters,” he said. “This is just to begin the conversation, give us the opportunity to have a little bit of skin in the game, before we lose any opportunity to say anything at all.”

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