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Voices / Legislative Update

Let Westminster leave forced union

The residents have spoken, and their message should be heeded. It’s how democracy works — or should.

Michelle Bos-Lun and Mike Mrowicki jointly represent all but a sliver of Westminster. Their Windham-4 district also includes Putney and Dummerston.

As state representatives, we share our support and concerns about Westminster’s vote to withdraw from the town’s forced merger with Athens and Grafton. Voters have voted, and in a democracy those votes are supposed to be counted and heeded.

Residents are understandably concerned about the future of democracy in Vermont. Westminster, as well as Grafton and Athens, voted (in two different elections) that Westminster should be allowed to separate and operate its own elementary school.

There were townwide votes that were ignored — and, in effect, “suppressed” votes.

The rationale to dissolve this merger rises up from efforts to make the forced merger work; those making those efforts found it did not. The geographic distance between Westminster and the other two towns made the supposed advantages of sharing staff and resources impossible.

Recently, news has come forward that there may be a “loophole” in the Act 46 “exit ramp” (where communities can vote to “divorce” if all towns agree). As Westminster is a union school district, the loophole does not apply here, according to statute.

Act 46 was supported by many legislators because they believed the education reform law could benefit Vermont students by enabling partnerships and collaboration between schools.

But they also believed the law provided an option for schools where the mergers did not work to opt out through a democratic process in impacted communities.

One of the best things local schools have going is their local community participation, fostered by local control of these schools with local boards.

That is what Westminster has had and wants to regain.

* * *

While we expect that the State Board of Education will approve our “divorce,” other communities are also facing this issue.

The State Board of Education will hold its next monthly meeting on April 21. We are hoping that Westminster’s request to reinstate its town school district will be on the agenda. After speaking with legislative counsel, we expect the board will affirm that our district shall be separated.

Westminster has had many challenges in this process. We hope these challenges are resolving as we return to governing our own elementary school.

We hope many Westminster residents will choose to attend the meeting. Meetings are open to the public, and you can request the Zoom link to attend.

We encourage all with thoughts on the issue of the state not honoring communities’ votes to separate after forced mergers to contact the Secretary of Education Daniel French. You can reach his office at 802-828-1130, or email him at daniel.french@vermont.gov.

* * *

The future of our children, our teachers, and our schools are at stake in Westminster and in other towns around Vermont facing similar challenges. The Board of Education needs to do the right thing and honor the votes of communities who have opted to dissolve unions and unified school districts that communities feel are not working.

It’s how democracy works. Voters vote, and the government listens.

It’s how Vermont is supposed to work.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #607 (Wednesday, April 7, 2021). This story appeared on page C2.

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