There are more questions than answers about what would happen if Stowe residents vote May 11 to leave the Lamoille South school district, including whether such a vote is even legal.
A letter from the Vermont Agency of Education sent last week to Stowe officials concludes that, while a Vermont town that voted to form a merged school district can vote to withdraw, this is not the case with districts that were forced by the state to merge.
Lamoille South was one of 11 new union school districts created by the State Board of Education in late 2018 — it encompasses schools in Stowe, Morristown and Elmore.
Both Elmore and Morristown will have to vote later this year on Stowe’s intent to pull out, complicating things further.
The April 9 letter from Emily Simmons, general counsel for the Agency of Education, notes that Act 46 — the school district consolidation law enacted in 2015 — does not indicate whether the Legislature intended to permanently deny members of forced districts the chance to withdraw from or dissolve the union.
The section of Act 46 regarding leaving a union is vague enough, Simmons writes, that it is unclear whether the “Legislature’s reticence on the subject reflects its assumption” that Act 46 prohibits it or whether it allows it.
Simmons concludes that until the Legislature “clarifies its intent,” the agency’s reading of Act 46 “supports the conclusion that a state board-created union school district is prohibited from pursuing withdrawal/dissolution.”
The agency’s stance stands in contrast to Stowe’s legal counsel, Nina Atwood, who opined last month that the State Board of Education would likely see a vote for Stowe to leave Lamoille South as “a rubber stamp.”
Lamoille South superintendent Tracy Wrend was invited to Monday’s Stowe Selectboard meeting to answer a laundry list of questions about what would happen if Stowe voted to leave the district. Topics included tax rate implications, enrollment, debt load, educational equity, AP scores, even the absence of Stowe High School from the pages of U.S. News and World Report, which publishes high school rankings.
Merger divorce is a highly-politicized subject in Stowe, and most of the topics covered in Wrend’s presentation were met with opposition, whether to the math, the methodology or the motive, at the meeting and the next day.
It was not feasible to fact-check everything in time for this week’s press deadline, so those topics will be addressed in coming issues.
Suffice it to say, merger withdrawal is a complicated business, especially with the letter from Simmons questioning the very legality of a merger dissolution a month before the vote.
Wrend likened a dissolution of the merger to trying to un-bake a cake.
“Before the merger, we were separate ingredients. Now we’ve been merged, and the flour, eggs and sugar have all been put in the same bowl, and they’ve been baked in a pan in the oven,” Wrend said. “The task of separating those ingredients back to flour, eggs, sugar and other yummy things is a lot more challenging than it is to put them together to make a cake to begin with.”
Jim Brochhausen, a former Stowe School Board member who decided not to jump ship to the merged district when it was formed — although he had a hand in crafting the merged board’s governing bylaws — said a key component has been missing from Lamoille South’s governance: student voice.
He said, in a phone call Tuesday, that the seven people who make up the board are adults from the three towns. Nearby merged districts, like Lamoille North and Harwood Union, have student representatives on their much larger boards.
“They never did make room for student voice,” he said of Lamoile South, calling it “a glaring missed opportunity.”
Brochhausen at Monday’s meeting borrowed Wrend’s baked goods metaphor.
“The cake is not tasting very good, at least in the students’ mouths, right now,” he said.
Wrend is a polarizing figure in Stowe and Morristown and some of her own school board’s members were wary about even allowing her to speak — her message to them was she didn’t need permission.
While some had data-driven disagreements with Wrend’s presentation, at least one simply took potshots at her.
Selectboard chair Billy Adams had to point out that, even though Monday’s meeting featured Wrend as a guest speaker, it was still a meeting of town government officials, not school officials.
Stowe resident Cindy Jackman, a frequent critic of Wrend’s, said she questioned Wrend’s motives, saying “she made it quite clear she is against un-merging” and things Wrend says “at best could be classified as extremely misleading.”
Jackman took umbrage with Wrend’s use of the royal “we” in describing next steps, saying “we fired her.”
This is not true, although Wrend is leaving at the end of the school year.
“That was so uncalled for,” Adams said of Jackman’s comments. “This community can do better than this.”