DUMMERSTON—Passions ran high, and thoughtful discussion flew out the window at Dummerston Town Meeting when Act 46 came up for discussion. But before that, other philosophical issues occupied the 200 or so townspeople who came to the seven-hour meeting.
These issues, discussed under the calm, firm but gentle hand of Town Moderator Cindy Jerome, were: farm land preservation, or as Jodi Normandeau put it to applause, “The town needs to take a stand that we do not want used car lots on Putney Road; we want farms!”; and the upheaval at the Windham Solid Waste Management District.
The district is closing its recycling facility and might be raising its fee for the annual “dump sticker.” One thing for sure is that it will be removing the free recycling roll-off bins from member towns, including Dummerston. This will lead to increased trash-removal costs for many residents, who were encouraged to write to or email the district with their concerns.
There was little controversy about either the town or school budget this year. For one thing, the Dummerston Fire Department, busily engaged in building a new fire station, withdrew its request for a new fire truck at a cost not to exceed $325,000.
The final town budget, which was approved, came to $512,093, plus $511,189 for the highway department. That made for a total of $1,023,282, or an increase of $116,146 from last year.
The school budget was down because the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union has taken special-education funding into its own budget. That made it possible for the town to vote to spend $2,987,500 on the schools, a decrease of 14 percent from last year.
Special education, however, still has to be paid for, so $281,568 for special education appears in the town’s WSESU assessment.
Then came Article 7 of the school warning, about Act 46.
Basically, Act 46 is a state law that calls for school consolidation in the face of current declining enrollment, lack of resources in some schools that leads to a loss of “equity” in education, and escalating costs.
The WSESU’s Act 46 Study Committee has been studying merger options for many months. A final deadline to complete some kind of merger plan has to be in effect by November of 2018. After that, the state Board of Education can come in and enforce its own plan.
The main merger plan was to join the management — not, as of yet, the physical plants — of the Dummerston school with Vernon, Putney, Guilford, and Brattleboro, creating a nine-member board that would oversee the union and eliminate local school boards and local budgets.
This loss of local control hasn’t sat well with some Dummerston residents. To that end, they collected enough signatures to place a nonbinding petition on the town warning requesting that the Dummerston School Board “engage in a full and thorough examination of the feasibility of alternatives to the merger.”
Dummerston has already — twice — voted down Vernon’s attempt to leave the union.
According to Amy Wall, Dummerston’s representative on the Act 46 committee, Dummerston already has achieved a bad reputation among the school planners, and she has personally been the target of name-calling and physical threats. The opposition has denied this.
Reasons for not wanting a merger include: dilution of local control; leaving a system that already works well; no guarantee that consolidation will save money; and the loss of local school culture.
During the discussion, one resident pointed out that the state pays five times more to imprison someone than to educate them. Another said the state should stop relying on the property tax to fund education. A third said, “We are in charge of our town. We can say this is not giving us enough time. It’s our right. Don’t let the Legislature make fools of us.”
In favor of consolidation, Wall pointed out that Act 46 is the law of the land and Dummerston should face up to it. She said the state wasn’t likely to rewrite the law or find a new way of paying for schools, at least not before the deadline.
She said schoolchildren would have a more enriched educational experience — she mentioned in-depth Chinese language study, for example — if schools joined resources. She also said Dummerston has behaved in a way that “is not conducive to dialogue and it’s unfortunate.”
In the end, voters overwhelmingly supported the nonbinding petition, but even opponents of Act 46 are uncertain what will happen next.
The meeting adjourned at 5 p.m.
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