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Jamaica votes to leave school union

As Act 46 merger talks continue, some want school choice

JAMAICA—With Act 46 merger talks looming, Jamaica voters have declared their school district’s independence.

The town on July 12 voted 78-75 to leave the five-town Leland & Gray Middle and High School union, a move that could allow Jamaica to pursue school-choice options that aren’t available within the current union structure.

But Jamaica’s exit isn’t yet certain, since the other four union towns — Brookline, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham — each must vote to approve the change. Officials expect that they’ll be answering a lot of questions prior to those votes, which will take place within 90 days.

“We need to provide information and transparency so that people have context in which to make decisions,” said Bill Anton, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent.

Act 46, the 2015 state law that aims to cut costs and equalize educational opportunities, has pushed districts across Vermont to consider school-governance mergers that would take effect no later than 2019.

But in Windham Central, merging is a complex topic. The supervisory union encompasses 12 boards and eight schools, with educational setups that run the gamut.

Windham Central has one town with no school and K-12 choice (Stratton); two towns that operate elementary schools and offer choice for middle and high school (Dover and Wardsboro); and one K-8 town with high school choice (Marlboro). There also are the five union towns, which operate elementary schools but then funnel their students to Leland & Gray for middle and high school.

No easy answers

With no quick way to reconcile all of those differences, Windham Central leaders didn’t pursue the state’s “accelerated” Act 46 merger option, choosing instead to take more time to study the issue.

Where Jamaica’s elementary fits in any future school-governance setups has been a matter of much debate. Officials have examined four options, but only one would involve staying and merging within the Leland & Gray union. The other three require leaving the union and introducing some level of school choice via mergers with other districts.

A townwide survey earlier this year produced no clear answers. Staying with Leland & Gray received more votes than any other option, but it didn’t garner a majority nod: 60 percent of respondents voted for one of the other three merger proposals.

That led Jamaica’s School Board to schedule the July 12 Australian Ballot vote on whether to leave the union. The special election drew about 23 percent of the town’s registered voters.

“We’re not really surprised by how close it was, because that mirrors what we’ve found in our survey and in conversation with residents,” Jamaica School Board Chairwoman Stephanie Amyot said the day after the vote.

There’s a chance Jamaica residents could submit a petition for reconsideration of the July 12 vote.

But if the result stands, residents in the other Leland & Gray towns must ratify it via an Australian Ballot vote. If any one town votes against Jamaica leaving, the union will be preserved as it now is constituted, Anton said.

‘A whole new world’

Anton — who took over as Windham Central’s superintendent this month amid several leadership changes in the supervisory union — said it’s not his job to lobby voters to preserve the Leland & Gray union. Rather, he said he’ll ensure that “all the legal mechanisms are taken care of.”

With Act 46, “we have a whole new world that we’re creating here,” Anton said.

Joe Winrich, a Townshend resident who chairs the Leland & Gray board, acknowledged that he’s concerned about the vote in Jamaica. “I’d like to understand the ‘why,’” Winrich said. “This is an opportunity for us to find out what’s missing and change what needs to be changed so there’s not this feeling that they want to leave the [union].”

At the same time, Winrich said he wants to gather as much information as possible before the other union towns vote “and then let them make their own decisions.”

Amyot said Jamaica’s board will be waiting to see what the other union towns decide, “and in the meantime working to make Leland & Gray the best school it can be.”

“We’re encouraged that the new administration there is taking Jamaica residents’ concerns seriously and is willing to engage in a dialog,” she said.

That dialog, in spite of Jamaica’s July 12 vote, still includes many Act 46 options.

Jamaica’s school board in May voted to join a study committee looking at a pre-K-through-12 merger of the Leland & Gray districts. Amyot said the board will be sending a representative to merger talks involving Dover, Wardsboro, and Marlboro — a potential merger setup that would provide school choice.

Additionally, Anton said there is an Act 46 study committee forming to examine a possible “side-by-side” merger involving the Leland & Gray towns and the school-choice towns of Dover, Marlboro, and Wardsboro.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #366 (Wednesday, July 20, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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