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Lawmaker fears school will be ‘nibbled by ducks’ over Act 46

Windham prepares to vote on closing its elementary school and file litigation as the final Act 46 deadline approaches

BRATTLEBORO—State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, wishes she could take back her “yea” vote on Act 46.

“I’m afraid that all of the information and all of the intent of this was not made really clear at the time this was going through,” she said.

Partridge’s statement summarizes the frustrations for many opponents of Act 46, a 2015 law that implemented education reform in the state. Vermont schools are wrestling with keeping costs down amid shrinking school populations.

Key to the act’s governance restructuring is merging the state’s 200-plus school districts — their administration and their school boards — into fewer larger districts.

The road through the merger process has proved bumpy for some districts that have yet to agree upon a merged structure, for the schools in these districts, and in the communities for which the schools have long served as anchors.

Last year, Windham, Brattleboro, Guilford, Putney, and Dummerston all voted against merging. Vernon decided to preserve its 50-year history of school choice and voted to withdraw from the BUHS #6 school district.

On Nov. 30, the state plans to announce its final “forced mergers” plans for approximately 35 districts, including Windham and WSESU.

In hopes of avoiding a forced merger by the state, Windham residents will vote on Monday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. at a Windham Town School District Special Meeting whether to close their elementary school and tuition their students.

The town is also prepared to sign on to litigation against the state if, as Partridge anticipates, Windham will be “forcibly merged.” Meanwhile, a volunteer group is exploring the possibility of turning the elementary school into a private school.

“We really object to the notion that our school could be dismantled slowly. You know, nibbled by ducks, to the point where it really wasn’t viable and the only sensible solution would be to close it,” Partridge said.

“I did not realize they could force us and take our property,” she said. “I would have had second thoughts about that at the time.”

A private elementary school?

According to Partridge, she voted for the bill three years ago because she was persuaded by then-Speaker of the House Shap Smith.

Partridge said she thought Act 46 would serve as an opportunity for people to talk about their schools’ futures. At the same time, schools would have “off ramps” in the form of alternative governance structures if towns voted down merging.

Stratton and Marlboro are two schools that made alternative structures work, she said.

Partridge, who also chairs the Windham School Board, explains the choice residents will make on Nov. 26.

“We have some ballot language that will authorize the school board to sell the school to the town,” she said.

The vote will also “allow us to tuition our students to any other elementary school or approved independent school of the parents’ choice,” she added.

Meanwhile, a separate independent group in Windham investigated transforming the current public elementary school into a private school.

Windham residents comprise the majority of the independent school study group. A few volunteers from surrounding towns also participated, said Partridge.

She added that the group has contacted the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to “proceed with an accreditation process” for the potential private school. Partridge said the group is also applying with the Internal Revenue Service for a nonprofit, tax-exempt status.

The school board’s lawyers will file litigation against the merger as soon as the state announces the fate of Windham Elementary on Nov. 30.

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education made a preliminary recommendation that Windham merge with the West River Modified Union Education District (WRMUED), which includes the towns of Newfane, Jamaica, Townshend, and Brookline. These towns voted in favor of a merger last year. Windham voted against.

Partridge said town officials predict that Windham will be forced into the WRMUED.

Constitutionality of law is questioned

Partridge said that at the heart of the litigation is a question of constitutionality.

If the state forces a merger under Act 46, Partridge said that Windham’s school building, its land, and its assets will be “essentially taken from us and given — in this case — to the West River Modified Unified Education District.”

“That has townspeople extremely concerned and upset,” she said. “I believe that, school property may not be taken without an affirmative vote from the townspeople, or the school district in this case.”

“We would prefer to remain a public school,” Partridge said.

She believes, however, that circumstances point to Windham Elementary eventually being closed down if it merges. Partridge points to Windham having only one vote on an 11-member board, as one way the town’s voice would be diluted in the WRMUED.

Uphill and downhill

As an example of a loss of local control, she also notes the WRMUED’s recent decision to send sixth graders to Leland & Gray, the regional middle- and high school in Townshend, despite many parents’ objections.

Windham is geographically isolated, Partridge noted. The town sits at approximately 1,700 feet above sea level with a steep hill down to the other West River schools.

Partridge continued, “We feel strongly that our young children not be taken down that hill in school buses, and they really do deserve to have the kind of education they receive now, in their home, in a community setting where their parents are available.”

She worries that if Windham’s young students are bused to another elementary school in the WRMUED, they will miss having their parents and community close.

She also notes that there exists a risk that parents’ participation in the lives of their children and the workings of the school would drop if students moved to another community.

Parents want flexibility to send their children to a school that works for their families, Partridge said.

She said her community’s concerns are not about Windham being a better school than other WRMUED schools.

“But what we are concerned about is that there might be parents who would prefer to send their kids to a school that is more convenient,” she said.

According to Partridge, since Windham joined with the Leland & Gray district in 1969, language existed in the town minutes from that time that said kids could go to Green Mountain Union High School in Chester if they lived on the north end of town.

If creating an independent school in Windham fails, parents might still want to have the choice to send their children to elementary schools that are nearby. For some parents, this could be Flood Brook School in Londonderry. For others, it could be Chester-Andover Elementary School in Chester.

A do-over that won’t happen

Partridge has been public about how she wishes she could take back her Act 46 vote.

Early on, when the legislative process was underway, one group wanted the Vermont Council on Rural Development to perform a statewide facilitated community study. The study would have helped Vermonters identify their education values and goals that, in turn, could be defined as benchmarks for any legislative solution.

Partridge said the idea died because of its $400,000 price tag.

Now, three years since Act 46 became law, “[g]iven what we’ve spent to make this all happen, which I think is in the neighborhood of $31 million, that $400,000 looks cheap,” she said.

Opponents in Windham County have stressed concerns that smaller communities will lose their local elementary schools. For many of these towns, their schools serve as community hubs. Those who question Act 46 also worry about losing local control and about the possibility that the newly merged school boards will become too big and too removed.

Communities’ concerns about losing local control and their fears about losing their small schools are founded, according to Margaret Maclean, a former Vermont school principal who has served on the state’s Board of Education.

Maclean, of Peacham, is outspoken about her concerns over Act 46 and, since 2014, has volunteered to help Windham and other towns in their efforts to comply with the new mandates.

Maclean was named Vermont Elementary Principal of the Year by the Vermont Principals’ Association in 1996. She currently works as an international education consultant.

Under Act 46, the state does not have the authority to close schools. Yet, Maclean said, the outcome remains a possibility for small towns like Windham.

“There is no question these schools will close in time,” Maclean wrote. “I believe the state knows this and has from the beginning.”

“Every state nationally with laws like this has seen school closures,” she continued. “This is spin on the part of the state, or delusional thinking.”

“They are right that the state will not close the schools, but the merged boards will,” she wrote.

Maclean points to the recent controversy over sending sixth-grade WRMUED students to Leland & Gray as an example of local control that has already disappeared.

“Yes, local control is effectively gone when your town has one or two representatives on a board of eight to 15 members,” she wrote.

“When you eliminate three-quarters of the school board members in the state and reduce representation, then obviously you have less of a voice in decision making and local voices are diminished in the process,” she wrote. “Boards are big and cumbersome, they become more formal, and meetings are often far away, not local.”

Alternative structures viable?

As the State Board of Education’s Nov. 30 announcement approaches, Maclean said it’s crucial for communities to understand that the alternative governance process still provides a viable option for towns like Windham.

Maclean said that the alternative process “is written into the law and is a legal route to compliance with the law.” In her opinion, many of the lawmakers, such as Partridge, voted for Act 46 with the understanding that communities could approve an alternative plan.

As passed by the Legislature, Act 46 accepts as barriers to merging as debt, geography, small school populations that “are unable to achieve the goals of the law,” or residents voting down the merger.

According to Maclean, 25 school boards have voted to either oppose a forced merger or object to the legality of losing small school grants. Of the 25 schools, five are in Windham County: Windham, Dummerston, Athens, Grafton, and Westminster.

She explained that internal Agency of Education rules and policies, not provisions of the law, account for the dissonance.

“The state board has taken a hard line and has not followed the law to approve alternative applications,” wrote Maclean. “This is why towns have voted to join a lawsuit.”

Expect the lawsuit to be complex, she warned.

“There are numerous legal questions that need answering — at least 12 legal issues are being explored,” Maclean wrote.

Key to Maclean is a question about Vermont’s future.

“Do we want vibrant rural communities? If so, we need to keep rural schools, as towns without a school wither away,” she wrote. “Families do not move to them or stay there.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #486 (Wednesday, November 21, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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