WINDHAM—On a 508-166 vote — a margin of more than 3:1 — residents of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham rejected placing Windham as a pre-kindergarten-through-grade-12 member of the West River Education District.
Despite the landslide vote against the town’s status as a full member town — a vote that, for all intents and purposes, preserves the status quo — work continues for the town of fewer than 400 people.
A second vote on whether to release the town from the Leland & Gray High School District is scheduled for July. The Windham School Board also has some tough questions to answer about the future of its elementary school, given its declining student enrollment.
The vote preserves the town’s current arrangement within the Windham Central Supervisory Union. The town educates its students through sixth grade and then, as a member of the Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School District, sends its older students to Townshend.
Last November, however, the State Board of Education recommended — under Act 46 — that Windham become a full member town in the West River Education District, joining Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, and Townshend.
The state board also recommended that all five of the member towns vote on whether to make Windham a full member or leave the situation as is.
“The vote was not a ‘shall,’” said West River Board Chair Joe Winrich. “It was a ‘may.’”
Winrich said that the West River board scheduled the June 11 vote because members believed that residents should directly decide the issue at the polls.
‘Respected our votes and respected democracy’
The day after the vote, Winrich said he was happy for Windham but said that the vote changed little for the school board.
“I’m glad Windham got the result they wanted,” he said. “I’m happy for them, and the West River District will care for the kids it’s responsible for.”
Superintendent William Anton also said that the vote did not change the relationship between the Windham Central Supervisory Union and Windham.
The majority of Windham residents have fought a new arrangement, voicing concerns over the potential closing of Windham Elementary School, a scenario that would require busing young children down the steep Windham Hill in winter.
The feelings were not universal as several Windham residents spoke in favor of the school’s full membership to West River at a recent informational session held in Jamaica and Newfane. These residents felt the merger would increase educational opportunities for their children.
Windham School Board Chair and state Rep. Carolyn Partridge said the June 11 results reinforced previous votes — March 2017, November 2018, and at Town Meeting 2019 — taken to assert the town’s independence and to stop mergers.
“I’m elated. I’m delighted, and very, very thankful to the voters — particularly in the other towns — for their support,” she said. “I loved the fact that they respected our votes and respected democracy, and let our position stand.”
Partridge said the school board will take the next year to decide which direction the school will travel.
After this year, Windham Elementary will have a “strong class of sixth graders,” Partridge explained. The fifth and fourth grades, however, are empty.
What’s next for the school?
This two-year gap in students leaves the school board with a big question: What do they do next?
“I’m not going to prejudge the situation,” Partridge said.
A few options on the table include keeping the school open but operating it as a one-room schoolhouse — all grades in one classroom — or closing Windham Elementary and tuitioning all students elsewhere, she said.
A citizen group in town is also exploring opening an independent school.
So how would Windham choosing to close its school be any different from the West River Education District closing the school?
In Partridge’s opinion, the difference is equity.
If Windham closes its school, all families will have “the equal ability” to send their kids to the school of their choice, she said. As a full member of the West River Education District, however, Partridge said families would be able to choose among schools in Jamaica, Townshend, or Newfane.
“They’re all fine schools,” Partridge said, but given Windham’s geography and location, those options are not as easily accessible to some areas of town as, for example, Flood Brook Elementary in Londonderry or Green Mountain Union High School in Chester.
Partridge thanked the volunteers who helped address by hand approximately 2,200 informational letters and between 1,800 and 2,000 postcards leading up to the June 11 vote.
“It really paid off,” she said.
Next vote: July 16
A second vote — jokingly refereed to as “Wexit” by Partridge — is scheduled for July 16. Voters will decide whether to release the town from the Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School District.
Windham has belonged to this district since 1969, said Partridge, a relationship that she describes as mutually beneficial.
But several households have indicated they’d like to withdraw, said Partridge, adding that when Windham developed its alternative governance structure earlier in the Act 46 process, the school board also conducted a town-wide survey.
Through this survey, a “strong proportion” of residents favored withdrawing from the the Leland & Gray district, she said.
If on July 16 residents in all the member towns vote “yes,” Windham will operate as Vernon, which earlier in the Act 46 process exited the new Windham Southeast School District over the issue of retaining school choice for its students.
Under this scenario, Windham would manage its own school district for pre-kindergarten through grade 12 — thus retaining that school-choice flexibility — as it remains a member of the Windham Central Supervisory Union.