Jamaica to reconsider leaving school union

Successful petition drive sets revote for Sept. 13

JAMAICA — Voters will get a second chance to decide whether Jamaica should leave the Leland & Gray regional school union.

Jamaica residents on July 12 approved their school district's departure from the five-town union by a three-vote margin. But 44 people have signed a petition asking for reconsideration of the matter, and the town school board responded by scheduling an Australian Ballot revote for Sept. 13.

The leader of that petition drive, Patti Dickson, is a Leland & Gray school board member. But Dickson said she was acting only as a Jamaica resident and parent who is concerned about the potential impacts of her town leaving the union.

She also was dismayed by how few people cast ballots last month.

“It was such a poor turnout for such a big issue,” Dickson said. “It's a huge change that could happen, and I want to make sure everybody knows about it.”

Jamaica's votes are spurred by Act 46, the 2015 state law that seeks to decrease school costs and equalize educational opportunity by pushing for mergers of small districts throughout Vermont.

Jamaica is part of Windham Central Supervisory Union, where Act 46 merger talks have been complicated by the geographical size and educational diversity of 12 boards, eight schools, and nine towns that offer varying levels of school choice.

Jamaica School Board members have spent much time studying their merger options and asking for public input. But a townwide survey earlier this year was deemed inconclusive, leading to the board scheduling the July 12 vote to determine whether the district should leave the Leland & Gray union.

Leaving the union could allow Jamaica students to have school-choice options that aren't currently available, as all students now go to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend.

The Jamaica school board is participating in a study of a possible pre-K-through-12 merger of the Leland & Gray union districts. But if Jamaica departs from the union, “the school board would pursue joining in a school district with Dover, Marlboro and Wardsboro,” said Stephanie Amyot, the board's chairwoman. “Under this scenario, Jamaica Village School would remain operational, and there would be choice from grades seven to 12.”

The results of the July vote, however, didn't establish a clear mandate for either of those options. Seventy-eight Jamaica residents voted to break ties with the union, while 75 wanted to stay.

That wouldn't have been the final word on Jamaica's departure, since state law says the other union towns - Brookline, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham - must vote to allow it. But some Jamaica residents wanted a do-over before the other towns have a chance to weigh in.

Jamaica Town Clerk Pamela Tweedy said 34 petition signatures, or 5 percent of Jamaica's voter checklist, were required to trigger a revote on the school issue. She received 44 signatures on Aug. 2.

The school board has scheduled the revote for 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sept. 13, at the town office. The new vote will be preceded by an informational meeting on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. at Jamaica's town hall.

Dickson said she pushed for a revote in part due to her family's positive experiences with Leland & Gray. “We feel there's a wonderful education available at Leland & Gray,” she said. “It's right here in our community. It's part of our community.”

There also are worries - previously aired by Leland & Gray's former principal - about what effect Jamaica's departure might have on the regional school's student body and its offerings.

Dickson believes it could “break up and segment” the Leland & Gray student population. She said she's also concerned about the potential costs of tuition and transportation in a school-choice scenario.

“I don't think that creates an equal educational opportunity,” she said. “And it could negatively impact the ability to keep some programs at Leland & Gray. It concerns me.”

Such sentiments run counter to school-choice advocates who have pushed for more educational options in Jamaica. At a meeting last fall, one commenter even said a lack of secondary-school choice could be an “obstacle” for those who might otherwise want to move to the town.

Jamaica's school board has stayed neutral on the possibility of leaving the Leland & Gray union, and Amyot has noted that “people on both sides of the issue are passionate and have valid concerns and arguments.”

The question is whether that passion will translate into more people casting ballots on Sept. 13. The school board “is hoping for an even better turnout for the revote so that all can feel comfortable that the vote results represent the town accurately and fully,” Amyot said.

Bill Anton, Windham Central's superintendent, said he is “pleased that the citizens of Jamaica are getting the opportunity to reflect on their previous vote and decide what they think is best for their students and community.”

At the same time, Anton said he is busy preparing for a new school year with several new administrators. That includes Leland & Gray Principal Bob Thibault, who - like Anton - started work this summer in Townshend.

“We have an amazing collection of educators and leaders, and I am so excited to see where we will lead our supervisory union,” Anton said.

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