A little more than two years after the state forced Stowe, Morristown and Elmore to merge into a single school district, some in Stowe want to talk about divorce.
Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann has long been a staunch opponent of forced school mergers, and of Act 46, the school district consolidation law that spurred them. She said voters in the three Lamoille South school district towns never got to vote on the issue, unlike other towns around the state.
“We’ve never had the opportunity to make our voices heard,” she said Tuesday. “At the very least, it should be a topic of discussion for the town.”
Jim Brochhausen, who sat on the former Stowe school board until it was supplanted by the merged board in July 2019, told the Stowe Selectboard Monday that Lamoille South communities spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and lawyers in coming up with an “alternative structure” to a merged district. That term was somewhat confusing, since the alternative, in this case, was to keep things the same, since it went against the spirit of Act 46.
“As a reminder, all three communities have always tried to maintain what was the status quo,” Brochhausen said.
He pointed to recent developments, such as Stowe nixing some AP classes this year, while Peoples Academy kept the higher-level classes, and Stowe no longer appearing on the U.S. News and World Report’s annual best schools list. He said consolidations that were supposed to lead to cost savings ended up costing more — busing, for instance, went up in price after Stowe-based Percy Transportation got out of the bus business.
“I think anyone with kids in the schools would say things are regressing,” Brochhausen said.
Stowe Town Manager Charles Safford said Monday that all Town Meeting Day business this year will be done by Australian ballot, and merger divorce isn’t on the warning or the ballot. But, Safford said, the town could warn a special meeting to start the conversation.
Nick Donza, a selectboard member who is married to school board member Tiffany Donza — she’s been vocally anti-merger in the past — said he’d like to get the ball rolling on a town-wide discussion of the matter.
“I would support doing that sooner rather than later, just so we can get everyone together, hear from everyone, learn about this, and then decide where we want to go from there,” Donza said.
Outgoing selectboard member Morgan Nichols, whose term ends March 2, pumped the brakes, saying she didn’t want to see a “hasty” vote. But Donza said it’s all but impossible to do that. He said it would take two months to warn a Stowe-only vote, which would trigger votes in Morristown and Elmore, up to three months after that.
“Even if this thing is fast tracked, we’re looking at four to six months down the road. And I think that's why it’s important for us to get ahead of it,” he said. “I’m envisioning and imagining that it will take multiple meetings, because it's a very complex issue.”
Proceed with caution
Board chair Lisa Hagerty took a middle road, saying the pandemic has proven that a lot of people will show up for selectboard meetings in a virtual setting — attendance has been higher in the virtual realm than most in-person meetings before the pandemic. But, she said, discussions about Stowe leaving the merged district ought to bring in voices such as the Agency of Education or the town’s attorney “to research that very basic question of whether we actually think that we have legal grounds to do this.”
At the same time, she warned of a “War of the Roses” downside to Stowe voters trying to put the issue to a quick vote, thus forcing Elmore and Morristown residents to take up the issue, too.
Richard Bland, of Stowe, tried to get a vote on the Town Meeting Day warning ahead of the Jan. 25 meeting where the selectboard finalized the warning, but wasn’t able to.
His proposed article read: “Shall the Town of Stowe withdraw from the Lamoille South Unified Union School District so that the Town of Stowe School District, which existed prior to the forced-merger with the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union School District, be reconstituted as an independent school district?”
The board did not take up Bland’s suggestion.
For the selectboard — aside from Donza — school business and the politics of merging might seem unfamiliar ground. For past and present school board members, though, these talks have been going on since 2017, Brochhausen said.
Act 46 fix?
Scheuermann has introduced legislation aimed at clarifying seemingly contradictory parts of Act 46. She said some lawyers interpret the law as allowing for towns to vote their way out of merged districts; others have the opposite interpretation.
“What was missing when the legislation passed was clarification of what happens if mergers don’t really work out,” she said.
Current Stowe school board representative Erica Loomis said — in an email to town officials asking the topic be placed on the Feb. 22 selectboard agenda — it would be unfortunate to miss the opportunity, should it arise.
“The saying ‘if you’re not first, you’re last,’ I think, applies here, and a thoughtful discussion of and by the public is in the best interest of all parties,” Loomis wrote.
She added Tuesday, “To me, democracy matters, and I think we let the voters decide.”
The school board is expected to take up the topic at its next meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 16. An agenda for the meeting, along with a Zoom link, will be on the school district’s website, lssu.org.