Whitingham and Wilmington voters approved consolidating their schools Tuesday in an effort to provide better academic opportunities to their students while keeping costs down.
Voters in the two towns, by a 14-vote margin, decided to add the elementary schools, currently under the jurisdiction of their respective towns, into the two-town governance structure to include Whitingham Elementary and Deerfield Valley Elementary under the Twin Valley system.
The amended contract will also allow for the renovation of two school buildings, and the closing of the third.
In a non-binding decision, the voters voiced their preference, by a 17-vote margin, to consolidate the elementary schools in Wilmington, and to move the middle and high schools to Whitingham.
Voters will make the final decision on which building to close in a bond vote later this year.
“At least we have a direction, and that’s a positive thing,” said Douglas Swanson, vice-chair of the Wilmington School Board.
The towns’ three school boards have worked on the consolidation question for close to five years, said Swanson.
Pressure from the state to make small schools more cost effective, usually through consolidation, and to make needed upgrades to the towns’ elementary, middle, and high school buildings prompted Tuesday’s vote.
Wilmington and Whitingham combined their middle and high schools 10 years ago, forming the Twin Valley school system.
The two towns have a contract governing the Twin Valley Middle School and High School, which jointly educate Wilmington and Whitingham students. The contract details issues such as school board structure and each town’s financial responsibilities.
The municipal neighbors also maintain three school buildings between them: Deerfield Valley Elementary and the Twin Valley High School in Wilmington and, under one roof, the Whitingham Elementary and Twin Valley Middle School in Whitingham.
In a relative landslide, Whitingham voted in favor of Article 1, amending the joint contract.
Of the 224 ballots cast, 161 (72 percent) voted “yay” and 59 (26 percent) voted “nay” to Article 1.
Roughly two-thirds of the voters there also marked 134 votes for consolidating the elementary schools in Wilmington and creating a combined Middle and High School in Whitingham. Only 68 voters preferred moving the elementary schools to Whitingham and the Middle and High School students to Wilmington.
Wilmington narrowly approved amending the joint contract, 208-194, of 405 votes cast.
Voters consolidation preferences were a little less clear.
Some 129 Wilmington voters preferred consolidating the elementary schools in town, but 128 voters marked “no” to both consolidation options.
Officials estimate it will take $11.2 million to move the elementary schools to Wilmington, upgrade Whitingham’s facility, and close the high school in Wilmington, which is Vermont’s smallest standalone high school and one of the smallest in New England.
The towns, however, would only ask for a 20-year construction bond of $6.72 million, after factoring in a $2 million credit to Whitingham and an estimated $4.48 million in state aid.
The school boards estimate that this option will save Whitingham $132,225 and Wilmington $409,039 annually. Savings would come from lowering costs like building maintenance and staffing.
The joint contract won’t go into effect unless the construction bond vote passes later this year, Wilmington School Board chair Philip Taylor said.
At an informational meeting on July 6 in Whitingham, Taylor told the public that the boards considered retaining and renovating all three buildings too expensive.
The boards want to keep education programs sustainable, Taylor said.
If the voters had marked a preference for consolidating the elementary schools in Whitingham and the Middle and High Schools in Wilmington, the option would have cost approximately $12.8 million. .
Under the current governance system, the Whitingham and Wilmington schools have three school boards.
The two towns’ elementary schools each have a board comprised of five residents. Two Whitingham board members and three Wilmington board members also serve on the Twin Valley School Board.
The three school boards’ goals behind consolidation revolved around creating an efficient and sustainable school system that minimized taxpayers’ costs and would be able to weather future cost increases or funding cuts.
According to informational materials, the Whitingham and Wilmington communities face a long-term decline in enrollment, which will translate to higher per-pupil costs.
High school needs work
The consolidation movement grew out of the Twin Valley Facilities Committee’s attempt to develop a design and budget for a new high school.
The high school in Wilmington, the oldest of the three buildings, needs multiple repairs and upgrades, said board members.
Consolidation, however, is rooted in providing a top-notch academic program, said school board members.
“We believe that in order for our children, communities, and schools to thrive, we must go beyond having a good school system — we must have great schools,” the boards wrote in a voters’ information booklet.
According to Taylor, a pre-kindergarten-through-grade-12 consolidated academic program will benefit students and teachers. Students would have fewer transitions from one school system to the next, he said, while teachers will have the opportunity to plan a more cohesive curriculum.
The consolidated school system will also help provide more academic opportunities for students, said recently retired Twin Valley High School Principal Frank Spencer.
More kids in one place will also mean more kids participating in the drama, arts, and sports programs.
The public has expressed both approval and concern for the consolidation project.
Many residents consistently said they worried that the other town would shirk their fiduciary responsibilities, or pull out of the project and leave the remaining set of taxpayers holding the bag.
Many of the other concerns focused on saddling taxpayers with a “Cadillac expense” in hard times.
“There are figures here that scare the heck out of me,” said Whitingham resident Sherry Adams.
At the July 6 information meeting, Adams told the school boards that some of the renovation plans, like a new gym in Whitingham, were too expensive.
“We don’t need some of these big-money things,” said Adams, who grew up in Whitingham and whose mother worked at the school.
“My family is ingrained in this school,” Adams said.
Whitingham Elementary School board member Seth Boyd asked Adams to remember 1956, when town voters took on the challenge of building the Whitingham school.
“There were people like your father, who stood up and fought for it,” Boyd told her.
People are trying to better the system for our kids, he said, and today’s struggles are the same as they were in 1956.
Other residents, such as Andy Schindel of Wilmington, felt that the towns can’t afford a high school and should tuition their students to other area high schools, as Dover does.
Whitingham Elementary School board member Aimee Reed said that families moving to the area will look for the town with the best school, and not for a town where kids have to travel long distances for their education.
“I think it will be the death of this valley if there’s not a high school here,” said Reed.
Jon Gamache of Whitingham said, “Show me that plan that will be a success for my children, and I’ll vote for it, whatever it is. It’s not about Wilmington or Whitingham, but about our students.”
Gamache, a father of three, has one child in elementary, middle school, and high school.
The boards will present the consolidation plans voted upon on Tuesday to the Department of Education design and aid approval, said Swanson.
The fate of the Wilmington high school building is still undetermined but, according to board informational materials, the goal is to turn it over to another organization.
The Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. (BDCC) and the Deerfield Valley Health Center both have expressed an interest, but neither have made commitments.
The BDCC has adapted the Cotton Mill and the former Book Press building, both in Brattleboro, and now leases both facilities as commercial space for a wide range of businesses.