There are a few remaining battles against forced school mergers across the state, even as the July 1 deadline quickly approaches just weeks away.
One such community fighting back is the Windham district in the southern portion of the state, which has just received a vote of support from four local communities.
Last fall, the State Board of Education said Windham must merge its elementary school with three elementary schools that serve the towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane and Townshend. On Town Meeting Day of 2017, Windham was the only community of the five to vote against the merger.
Carolyn Partridge, chair of the Windham School Board, said the recent vote by the towns show continued resistance against Act 46.
“We had a vote yesterday [June 11] and 674 people total voted in the towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham — and 508 people voted no in terms of forcibly merging us, and 166 voted to forcibly merge us,” she said.
The new union is to be called the West River Modified Union Education District (WRMUED), often referred to as the “MUD” district. All member elementary schools and Windham (even without the merger) send their graduates to the Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School located in the West River Valley.
Partridge said the geographic isolation of their community, which is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation from the other towns, is just one concern about the merger.
“There’s no doubt about the fact that our population is declining and there may come a day when we have to make a hard decision to close our school,” she said. “If that day ever comes, we really want the folks at the northern end of town to have the same kind of choices that the folks at the southern end of town have.”
She said parents have approached her to say they would send their children to Flood Brook in Londonderry, Chester-Andover School in Chester, or others if Windham ever closes. She also emphasized that the Windham community has already approved their latest budget, which includes supporting established contracts with teachers. A merger now would undermine those contracts, leaving uncertainty for those staff.
Joe Winrich, chair of the MUD board, maintains that the union board gave no formal recommendation for or against the merger.
“We never laid out reasons why they should merge necessarily,” he said. “We did say here are some of the positives, and they took care of the negatives.”
Some of the positives included a large tax break for Windham residents, according to an information sheet Winrich provided. The merger saves those residents about $600 per year in property taxes based on a $200,000 home. There’s also a free breakfast and lunch program, which is only available to its district members.
However, only a yes vote of Windham voters can close the school. Winrich suggested for now the schools will go their separate ways.
“The voters have spoken and it’s now a definitive thing,” he said. “Windham goes forward with its path and the West River District goes forward with its path, and there we are.”
Partridge added that the Windham district is involved in a lawsuit against the state. That legal fight is being led by lawyer and education activist David Kelley, of Greensboro.
“We’re part of this lawsuit and we have real issues with the fact that somehow this unelected board, this State Board of Education, could order that we be merged into the rest of the MUD without an affirmative vote of our people and giving our property to the MUD without an affirmative vote of our people and without fair compensation,” she said.
According to the Vermont Constitution, taking of property requires both a vote of approval and compensation.
Kelley told True North the transfer of property that would occur in a merger amounts to a “transfer of debt without the consent of the voters.”
Another point of contention concerns how state money provided for the critical small school grants that help rural schools stay open. Kelley indicated that the state is holding back some of this money back as leverage to push schools into mergers.
Kelley alleges that the state didn’t give serious consideration to “alternative governance” proposals from schools to provide a quality education for an affordable price without engaging in a merger. He said that he expects a legal decision any time.
Winrich doesn’t expect a court decision to change much regarding the outcome of the towns’ recent vote.
“I don’t think that court case would change anything in terms of the outcome here,” he said. “Our voters warned the vote and said we don’t want to accept Windham into the West River District, so they are not in.”
Kelley added that there are three other constitutional issues being appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Kelley said he’s impressed with the vote to support Windham’s independence.