Stowe residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to leave the Lamoille South School District, two and a half years after the state forced the town school district to merge with Elmore and Morristown.
The vote to withdraw from the merged district was 1,068-464 in favor.
The question remains: If there’s a will, is there a way? Lawyers for the town and for the state have offered differing opinions on whether Act 46, the state’s school district consolidation law, allows towns that were forced into mergers to leave them — the town’s lawyer thinks they can; the Agency of Education’s lawyer does not.
In the lead-up to the vote, there were also questions of what Stowe schools have lost or gained from the merger.
In the end, it might not matter, because in voter turnout rarely seen outside a presidential election, 70 percent of those who cast a ballot chose to leave and go back to being a standalone school district.
“Stowe residents have spoken loud and clear, and we believe our schools are stronger and more responsive when the people who know our community the best make our educational decisions,” said Leigh Pelletier, a former Lamoille South School Board member, and former member of the now-defunct Stowe School Board. “Now, it’s time to hear what the residents of Morristown and Elmore think.”
Pelletier was referring to votes that now have to happen in those two towns on whether to allow Stowe to leave. As of press deadline, neither town had scheduled a vote.
Stowe town clerk Lisa Walker said the vast majority of voters cast their ballots before Tuesday’s election — of the 1,532 cast, the town clerk’s office had received 1,278 by Monday.
“It was a great turnout,” Walker said.
Jim Brochhausen, another former Stowe School Board member and one of those pushing for the merger dissolution, said he and others have been doing this for years — striving to keep Stowe independent even as the winds blew toward consolidation. He said the vote wasn’t a surprise, but he was pleased to see a solid referendum for withdrawal.
“I think the Stowe electorate is pretty well-informed about this and always wanted to stay separate,” Brochhausen said.
Rick Sokoloff, who, along with his wife Marina Meerburg had been vocal about voting no on the merger withdrawal, said he thinks the decision was made out of emotion and wondered how much critical thinking went into it.
“I don’t know if we should have our own school district, but I don’t think now was the right time to make that decision,” Sokoloff said.
Stowe House Rep. Heidi Scheuermann has been a vocal opponent of Act 46, particularly the forced merger aspect, and she fought the merger in the 2019 legislative session.
In a statement Wednesday, Scheuermann said, “The message sent was loud and clear. The community of Stowe wants our local schools to be returned to us, and the education delivery returned to its prior structure of two high-performing school districts working together under one supervisory union. I am hopeful that Morristown and Elmore voters will agree that the best way forward is to return their local schools to their communities as well, by voting in favor of Stowe’s withdrawal from the forced merger.”
Brochhausen said he hopes Stowe residents can “respect the democratic process” and pull together as a community and for the kids. He said he hasn’t seen much benefit from merging on the education side of things, and most of the efficiencies come from school governance side.
When asked about the big question mark — is the vote legal or not? — he said he thinks the merger will be approved without having to make any changes to state law.
“I’m not a lawyer, but my gut tells me this will not go through the Legislature,” he said. “First things first, though, Morristown and Elmore have to vote next. Those are the next two boxes that have to be checked.”