WINDHAM — Windham Elementary School ended the 2022-23 school year this spring with three staff members resigning.
With high turnover rates for educators nationwide, the departure of three employees might not be cause for concern at most schools. But at the tiny Windham Elementary, those three employees - a principal, a teacher, and an administrative assistant - represented 100% of the school's staff.
The school has since hired a principal and teacher, and it has made an offer to an administrative assistant candidate. But the resignations have added fuel to a longstanding debate over the future of the tiny K-6 school, which educated 19 students in the spring semester, according to state data.
In Windham - population 449, as of 2020 - roughly half of voters want to close the school. Last month, six families filed a lawsuit against the town and the state of Vermont, alleging that the education provided by the school was so inadequate that the district should instead have to send its children elsewhere.
"The Windham school children are substantially disadvantaged by the legal requirement that they attend the public school in their town," the lawsuit reads.
'An amazing orchestra of collaboration'
In 2015, facing declining enrollment and rising educational costs, Vermont lawmakers passed legislation to consolidate school districts. Over the next few years, the state offered both carrots and sticks to convince school districts to merge with their neighbors.
But, in 2019, Windham voters rejected a plan to merge into a district with neighboring towns, instead opting to remain independent. The school now has a standalone district under the umbrella of the Windham Central Supervisory Union, meaning it receives some services from the central office but operates its own school board.
In 2021, the town held two divisive, back-to-back votes on whether to close the school. In September of that year, by a margin of two votes, residents opted to close it; two months later, they reversed that earlier decision by a margin of three. That second election sparked an ongoing legal challenge accusing three nonresidents of voting fraudulently.
Advocates for keeping Windham Elementary open say that its intimacy and rural setting offers a uniquely Vermont education - one that includes cross-country skiing, field trips to local farms, and personalized instruction.
Having a school in town means young children do not have to endure long bus rides on treacherous winter roads, they assert. And they say it helps attract much-needed younger families to Windham, where residents say much of the housing stock is made up of second homes.
But, critics say, the school is lacking many of the basics, such as dedicated teachers for each grade level, extracurriculars, and a full-time counselor.
Parents have also raised concerns that having 6th graders and kindergartners in such close proximity could lead to uncomfortable interactions, if not bullying. And, some say, maintaining such a small school is a strain on local tax dollars.
Bob Thibault, the Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent, pointed out in an interview that Windham Elementary is not the only school of its size in the state.
In 2020, Windham Elementary was one of half a dozen schools across the state with fewer than 30 students, and one of only two with fewer than 20 students, according to state data.
"I think that small schools in general have challenges due to their size," Thibault said. "And yet also, at the same time, small schools can really individualize a student's learning experience in a way that a big school cannot."
School officials say the staffing crisis this summer - during which the longtime chair of the three-person school board also resigned - will be resolved by the beginning of the fall semester on Aug. 30.
"We have new staff, a whole new board, and it is an amazing orchestra of collaboration that's going on right now," Abby Pelton, the newly elevated chair of the Windham Elementary board, said in an interview.
'I have concerns'
But that has not quashed parents' skepticism about the education offered by the school.
This summer, eight families petitioned the school board to pay tuition for their children to attend school elsewhere. Those children would represent a significant proportion of Windham Elementary's student body, although it's not clear how many expect to enroll this fall.
"Fifty percent or more of the parents have put in tuition requests," Bridgette Blanchard, a district parent, said at a July 27 board meeting. "What are we going to do about this?"
Officials admitted that the school was in a tough spot.
"I try to be an optimist and believe that with the right people in place that this little school can be an incredibly powerful educational experience for kids," Thibault, the superintendent, said at that meeting. "I have concerns, as well, around some of it."
He said that he had earlier proposed temporarily suspending class at the school for one year while it worked to rehire staff. Officials ultimately decided against that proposal.
At that meeting, the board rejected the tuition requests. In an interview, Pelton, the chair, declined to discuss the reasons for the rejections, citing student privacy, but acknowledged parents' concerns.
"I'm not going to downplay anything," she said. "Everybody's feelings are valid, whoever stands on whatever side of [the] argument. If a family had a bad experience, that's valid, and they have every right to advocate for their students."
After those rejections, Deborah Bucknam, an attorney representing six families, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn those rejections - and to force the district to pay tuition for the children to attend other schools.
Even fully staffed, the lawsuit argues, Windham Elementary provided an inadequate education: The school has no full-time counselor, and children often have no peers of the same age and grade, according to the complaint.
And because of the small staff, instances in which a teacher is sick, absent, or called away for another reason could lead to "chaos" in a classroom.
"Upon information and belief, quite often 'all hell broke loose' during those times," the complaint reads.
'Substantially equal educational opportunity'
The case raises thorny questions about one of the most cherished tenets of Vermont's educational establishment: the concept of "local control," whereby communities are able to make decisions about their own governance.
Windham chose - albeit narrowly - to keep its public school open. But what happens when a substantial portion of the school's families don't want their children to attend?
Bucknam's lawsuit follows in the wake of a Vermont Supreme Court decision in another lawsuit, Vitale v. Bellows Falls Union High School or Vitale v. Vermont, which sought to create a statewide school choice program. Bucknam, a former Republican candidate for attorney general, also filed that case.
In March, the Vermont Supreme Court rejected that bid but did leave the door open for other such challenges. The decision "does not foreclose the possibility that a plaintiff could bring a challenge that satisfies the legal standards stated in this opinion," the court ruled.
"In order to state a claim [...] the allegations in parents' complaint must demonstrate that having school choice results in substantially better educational opportunities for Vermont children," the decision reads.
In the Windham complaint, Bucknam explicitly cited those prerequisites.
"The Plaintiffs will demonstrate that the factors set forth in the Supreme Court's Vitale decision are met here, and denying Windham school children town tuitioning violates their constitutional right to substantially equal educational opportunity," the complaint reads.
"We're hopeful that the court will agree with us that Vitale requires the court to at least look at the evidence to see whether or not children are receiving a substantially equal educational opportunity, as compared to students who have school choice," Bucknam said in an interview.
The lawsuit names the town of Windham and the state of Vermont as defendants.
The chair of the Windham Selectboard declined to comment on the litigation, and spokespeople for the Agency of Education and the Attorney General's Office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Under Vermont statute, the state's secretary of education is responsible for ensuring that schools are providing "substantially equal" educational opportunities. To do this, the secretary is empowered to rearrange districts, close a school, or take "administrative control" of a school.
A spokesperson for the Agency of Education did not reply to phone calls or emailed questions, and it's unclear whether the agency might take any action regarding the school.
Meanwhile, Jenna Cramer, Windham Elementary's newly hired principal, expressed excitement about the upcoming year.
In previous years, one teacher would teach all subjects for a particular grade level. But in the upcoming year, Cramer plans to divide classes by subject rather than grade level, meaning all students will have two teachers.
She acknowledged the division over the school but said it would not impact students' learning.
"I think people's emotions are high, and I 100% honestly understand that," she said.
But, she added, "we're going to make [decisions] based on what's best for kids. I'm not here for the drama."
This News item by Peter D'Auria originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.