NEWFANE — Voters in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham have a choice to make next week: whether to include the town of Windham as a full pre-kindergarten-through-grade-12 member of the West River Education District.
They will also decide whether to include that town's previously approved budget for kindergarten through grade six.
Right now, Windham is a member of the West River Education District for grades seven through 12, and operates its own school, Windham Elementary, for 17 primary-age students.
A “yes” vote on Tuesday, June 11, would expand Windham's membership to the district for the entire student population.
Voters are making this decision as a result of the Vermont State Board of Education's final recommendations contained in its Nov. 28, 2018 report on Act 46 mergers.
Superintendent Bill Anton estimates that approximately 25 students from Windham attend school at either Windham Elementary or at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School. He did not have the number of home-schooled kids from the town.
Board 'not for or against'
On May 29, approximately 15 people attended an informational session at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane, one of three such meetings in the district to take questions from the public before the vote.
At a few points during the meeting, which lasted just under 90 minutes, permeated the conversation was tension stemming from fears of uncertainty about such issues as bus schedules, programming, potential school closures, and school choice.
For example, one unidentified woman said that the board is asking voters to make a decision that will have an impact on students' education for decades - especially in Windham - without giving them all the details about potential ramifications.
In response to a question from the audience, School Board Clerk Drew Hazelton said there is no benefit to the West River District's school board of either a “yes” or a “no” vote.
The board is not for, or against, including Windham as a full member of the school district, he said - under Act 46, the voters were given this decision to make.
“We are providing facts to the public so they can make an informed decision on an issue they were given a right to vote on,” Hazelton said.
Effects of a 'yes' vote
Hazelton outlined some of the facts voters should consider:
A “yes” vote means:
• Windham will merge into the West River Education District as pre-K-through-12 member and will become a “full partner” with the other towns, Hazelton said.
• The Windham School Board will dissolve in December.
• Windham students will receive the same educational benefits as other towns.
• The home school for Windham students will still be Windham Elementary, unless families take advantage of the education district's choice program and choose a school in one of the other four towns. Families in the other member towns can also send their kids to Windham.
• Windham Elementary will have full-day preschool and a universal lunch program.
• The education tax rate for Windham will decrease by 30 cents compared to previous estimates. Jamaica and Townshend's tax rate will increase by a penny compared to previous estimates. Newfane and Brookline's respective tax rates will remain the same.
• Closure of the Windham school could not be decided by the West River Education District's School Board or by the other towns. The school could be closed only after an affirmative vote by Windham residents.
• If Windham Elementary is closed, the town can purchase the building for $1.
What happens if the vote is 'no'
A “no” vote on June 11 would trigger an additional vote in the other four towns to decide whether to let Windham out of the West River Education District for grades seven through 12, said Hazelton.
For that second vote to pass, Hazelton continued, all four towns would need to agree.
If that happens:
• Windham would exit the Leland & Gray district and be required to repay approximately $50,000 in debts from a previous bond.
• Windham students in grades seven through 12 could qualify for school choice or be designated to attend a specific high school, depending on the will of that town's voters.
• The estimated education tax rate for Jamaica, Brookline, Newfane, and Townshend would increase by 6 cents compared to current estimates. The tax cost to Windham would depend on how it would decide to tuition students in grades seven through 12.
• On the elementary school side, the school could function as is, or the elementary school board could close it.
• If the voters of any one of the four towns elect not to let Windham out, then Windham must remain in the Leland & Gray school district. The younger grades would then either attend Windham Elementary or, if the school were closed, they would attend other schools.
• Windham would support two separate budgets: one for elementary-school-aged students and the other for students in grades seven through 12.
Andy Snelling from Townshend asked why a yes vote would make sense, given that Windham doesn't want to participate in the district, that the town's entrance would change the tax rate, and that, per district rules, if the district wanted to close the Windham Elementary, it would need to take another vote.
School Board Chair Joe Winrich said the board is not taking a position.
“Windham has a path to follow, and while we're not trying to obstruct it in any way, we're just giving the information and letting people make their own choice,” Winrich said.
“It certainly simplifies district operations to have [Windham] all the way in or all the way out,” he added. “The way we have it now, with [the town] halfway in and halfway out complicates things for them as well as us.”
Snelling then said if anyone in the audience favored Windham joining as a full member, he'd like to hear their argument.
A woman from Windham responded that being a part of the district would give her children more opportunities. According to her, households without kids also supported the merger because it would reduce their property taxes.
Sally Newton, a teacher at Windham Elementary, said that while Windham doesn't have the same opportunities as schools in the other four towns, it does have some other advantages.
She asked what the board would do to support the small schools and their kids. For example, would the board expand after-school programs?
“So that our school doesn't have to close,” Newton said.
Winrich said the board couldn't get into specifics at this point because up until now, Windham has been clear that it doesn't want to be a part of the district and, therefore, the board hadn't discussed programing for the small elementary school.
However, if the June 11 vote results in adding all Windham students to the district, Winrich said the board would have those conversations because it would be responsible for educating Windham's elementary-school children.
Winrich clarified that operations at Windham Elementary would continue as they currently exist, because there wouldn't be time to change programming before the new school year.
Noting that if the smaller schools like Windham and Jamaica are shut down the district school choice program would include only NewBrook and Townshend Elementary, Newton later asked how residents in those two school communities would feel about their children being in overcrowded classrooms.
Anton said that population projections point to NewBrook and Townshend having room to absorb the additional students from the two other towns.
Hazelton thought that its unique programming would be one way in which Windham Elementary could shine.
He said he felt that it was important to point out that, when talking about equity, the community isn't talking about “cloning programs” across all five towns.
“We're not creating equal, we're creating equitable, and it's okay for each school to be different,” he said.
Instead, he said, the board has had conversations about creating unique programs in each school and honoring each school's unique culture.
“The school culture and the school environment that's created in each building we operate is unique to that building,” he said. “It's one of the advantages of having unique programing and school choice.”
Snelling asked what the ideal size would be for an elementary school from both an educational and a budgetary standpoint.
If the board is going to take over running all the town schools without a change in the number of buildings or the budget, then he couldn't see any savings.
Anton said that there's a lot of research but no agreement about what constitutes the “perfect size.” There are some economic benefits to having more students in a class, he acknowledged.
But travel, distance, tradition, and respecting the will of citizens are also influences, he said.
“Whatever happens with this vote, this board will take a long-term look” at all these issues, Anton said.
'Intricacies that the district board is not considering'
Carolyn Partridge, Windham School Board chair and state representative, said of the approximately 15 people in the audience, eight were from Windham.
She said that Windham residents had passed a unanimous budget which included substantial increases for special education and pre-kindergarten. The Windham School Board has also signed a teachers' contract.
Yet, there are uncertainties here, and it hard to make a judgement about merging without knowing what's available, Partridge said - for example, the future of the teachers and their contract.
The bus drivers' contract would be null and void, she added.
“There are intricacies that the district board is not considering,” she said.
In Partridge's opinion, the current scenario illustrates one of the problems of Act 46 for smaller schools. Windham parents who work in Brattleboro might be tempted to enroll their kids in Townshend, which offers after-school programs and full-day pre-kindergarten, thus diminishing the population at Windham Elementary over time.
“If we had real equity, then there would be same programs in Windham,” she said. She asked voters to reject the question.
Budgets previously approved
According to a press release from Anton's office, voters in Townshend, Newfane, Jamaica, Brookline, and Windham previously approved their school budgets for the 2019-20 school year.
Voters approved the West River Education District school budget in two parts:
• March 26, the voters in Brookline, Newfane, Jamaica, and Townshend approved the budget for kindergarten through grade six.
• April 30, the voters in all five towns approved the budget for grades seven through 12.
Earlier this year, Windham voters also approved their own prekindergarten-through-grade-six budget totaling $450,039 for their 17 students in those grades for the 2019-20 school year.