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Mickey Parker-Jennings, principal and one of two teachers at the tiny elementary school.

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Windham Elementary remains open, but controversy continues

Voters agree, in a second visit to the ballot box, to keep it going for at least another year; intra-union school choice under discussion

WINDHAM—By a margin of just three votes in a revote, Windham Elementary School will remain open for at least one year, but the controversy and disagreement continues.

On Nov. 2, voters went to the polls and voted 142–139 to keep the school open.

This action comes two months after voters chose to close the 16-student elementary school by two votes, 137–135, on Sept. 7.

However, confusion about the vote — some, apparently, thinking they had voted to close it when, in fact, they had voted to keep it open, and, by some interpretations, confusing phrasing of the question — engendered a petition to obtain a second vote.

Both votes echoed the school community: very divided.

Principal-teacher Mickey Parker-Jennings has been teaching at Windham for 18 years and has also served as principal since 2015. Although his good humor can still be heard, he sounds a bit stressed, and no wonder.

“I’m going to reserve comment on this because I have a number of parents of children in my classroom who want the school closed,” says Parker-Jennings, one of two teachers at the school. The other teacher, Sara Wunderle, also wears a second hat, serving as administrator.

“I’m obviously relieved we’re open because I love the school and believe in it, but I’m trying to remain neutral,” Parker-Jennings adds. “It’s been a really uncomfortable situation for a while now.”

“I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that if I didn’t believe in what we’re doing, I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

The only potentially unifying glimmer seems to be current conversation about the possibility of allowing school choice, allowing children to attend other schools within the Windham Central Supervisory Union.

Both State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, a Windham Democrat who also serves as school board vice chair, and pro-closure advocate grandparent Crystal Corriveau find this option a potentially good thing — especially in that the usual situation where state education dollars follow a student to the new school would not be the case.

If it all works, even when students choose another Union school, their state education dollars would stay at Windham Elementary.

The pros

Partridge has advocated all along for the school to remain open.

“I’m glad that we prevailed the second time around,” she says. “I think the school is incredibly important to many of our families. Their lives basically run around the school schedule. The folks who really love the school and recognize its incredible value are the folks we all, as a team, went to bat for.”

Partridge says Windham Elementary was the only school that remained open in the area full-time during the 2020-21 pandemic year with 12 students, although others say there were just nine students on campus.

She believes the controversy to close the school started with an ad hoc committee formed to look at the tax rate.

“We have the second lowest tax rate in the supervisory union, second only to the town of Stratton,” she says, countering that reason for closure.

She also points out that there has been at least one school — and at one time there were eight, largely one-room schoolhouses — in Windham since the early 1800s.

Partridge refutes the claim that students at such a small school don’t have the same opportunities as students who attend larger schools, such as Flood Brook School in Londonderry, where several parents want their children to go.

“I think students have, in many cases, a lot more opportunity than what they would get in other schools,” says the former school board chair who served in that seat for 20 years and whose children attended school here.

She says families who want the chance to send their kids to Flood Brook, for instance, haven’t done due diligence when they say the school offers painting, dance, and chess clubs, plus a full skiing program.

She contacted the school principal and wrote back to the group, called Windham Committee for School Choice. It seems there is a ski program, but while the kids get bus rides to the mountain, their equipment does not — parents are responsible for taking it to them. There are also no painting, dance, or chess clubs at Flood Brook, Partridge says.

Pro-closure advocates say there are no art or music professionals teaching at Windham, while Partridge points out there are artists and artisans and musicians in the community who volunteer to do projects with kids, including one artist-in-residence, Susan Heafner, who did so during the pandemic.

Windham students have performed at the West River Community Project, Valley Cares, the Harvest Supper, and in other venues. The school has had a partnership with the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center for four years.

Partridge also says many folks with concerns have actually moved here from elsewhere — as she did more than 40 years ago — but don’t have children. She notes that Windham is completely current with curriculum and teaching standards and is not out of compliance with special education or any other mandates.

Partridge writes that at the school board’s Aug. 17 meeting, Windham Central Supervisory Union Financial Officer Laurie Garland shared a document she had prepared, “Assumptions and Summary for Budget Comparison Analysis — Operational and Non-operational Projected Budgets” — that revealed if the school is operational and stays open, the projected education tax rate will be $1.806 per $100 of valuation.

If the school closes and students are to pay tuition elsewhere, the tax rate will be $1.949 per $100 of valuation.

“Higher taxes, fewer opportunities, and the necessity to transport your children to school rather than having them bused to our own local community school? To my mind, that just doesn’t add up to be a good deal for hard-working Windham parents and their children or for our taxpayers,” wrote Partridge.

She is also highly complimentary of Parker-Jennings.

“What he does for our kids is amazing,” Partridge said of the principal.

The cons

Corriveau, who has two boys at Windham, wants the school to close.

“I just think parents should be able to choose to go to a bigger school that has more options than Windham,” she says, adding she hopes to be able to send her charges to Townshend Elementary by the end of the year if the intramural union-choice option passes.

Do her boys like it at Windham?

“Yes, they do, but if they had a choice, they would go back to Townshend,” she says, noting both attend pre-kindergarten there.

Corriveau has not only harsh criticism for Partridge, but wants her investigated.

“I think that Carolyn abuses her power as a state legislator and uses it in her role as a school board member, and I have already contacted the AOE (Agency of Education) and I do think a Hatch Act violation should be investigated,” she says.

The Hatch Act of 1939 is a federal law whose main provision prohibits civil service employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president and vice president of the United States, from engaging in some form of political activity.

Asked how she believes Partridge abuses power, Corriveau connects the answer to “at least” four voters in the Nov. 2 election who she says Partridge knew about and who should not have voted.

Corriveau claims the voters live in Peru and, while they have a house in town here, they haven’t lived there for 2{1/2} years, the house has mold, and the town is looking to condemn it.

Partridge called the charge ridiculous.

Both agree about the mold, but Partridge says the family in question has applied for mold abatement money, thus intending to return to live in the property they own and thus legally qualifying to remain voters in town.

According to the Vermont Secretary of State website, “Vermont election law defines a resident as ‘a person who is domiciled in the town as evidenced by an intent to maintain a principal dwelling place in the town indefinitely and to return there if temporarily absent, coupled with an act or acts consistent with that intent.’”

Still, Corriveau is adamant.

“If I had the resources and finances, I would file paperwork in Superior Court to overturn this vote, but I don’t have $10,000 or $30,000, which is what we’ve been quoted, to overturn it,” she says.

“Quite frankly, the Board of Education should be stepping in here to see what’s going on,” Corriveau says. “No lunch program? They’ve never had a lunch program at Windham. You have to send lunch with the kids every day. And there’s no breakfast. They have no art or music programs, unless they get a volunteer.”

“Our bus driver is the most wonderful man in the world, but if he’s not available, you get an email telling you you have to drive your kids to school and please pick them up at three o’clock,” she continues.

“Plus, I have a child who needs special education,” Corriveau says. “With two staff members, how are they going to do that? Are they going to bring someone in? No, because if they did, they’d be over budget and penalized by the state of Vermont.”

“So there are plenty of reasons to want to close this small school,” Corriveau concludes. “The school is a disaster. We don’t live in Little House on the Prairie. The state needs to step in and close these small schools and consolidate them and put the funds there, so that all kids in Vermont can get a better education.”

The calm

Amid the fray of accusations zipping by, parent Bridget Corby, who has one son in the elementary school and one in preschool, has a calm perspective.

She’s been on both sides of this equation and now she’s on a third side: the kids’ side.

“I was on the side of looking for more opportunities for our kids,” she says. “There are certainly pros and cons to a small school. And if it’s going to stay open, my ‘side’ is doing what I can to make it the best experience for my kids. I will say that it’s definitely been an experience.”

She describes the recent turmoil as “a really hard few months for parents on both side of the debate.”

“At this point, I don’t feel like any of us are really winning if we don’t make a change from this,” Corby says. “It really takes resources and funding and community support.”

“I think when the vote is that close both times there’s still a lot of work to do,” she says. “My goal to give my kids the best experience hasn’t changed because the outcome went a different way.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #638 (Wednesday, November 10, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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