School meetings in several central Vermont communities were overshadowed by legal and financial questions raised by challenges to forced mergers under the Act 46 law.
In the Washington Central Supervisory Union, towns are divided over a merger that would have some schools assume the debt of others.
Annual school meetings often focus on budgets, buildings and student performance.
But also wrapped up in these discussions are fundamental questions of local identity. Local schools are often where you vote and where you see your neighbors at soccer games and holiday concerts
“We don’t necessarily have town centers,” said East Montpelier voter Edith Miller. “Our school building is the center of our town. We’re proud of it. It’s the place where we gather. So I do understand why people feel protective.”
East Montpelier Elementary has the largest student population in the five-school district, which feed students into a union high school. Voters in 2012 also approved an $8 million bond to renovate the building.
And under a forced merger plan issued in November by the state Board of Education, other schools in the district will have to shoulder a portion of East Montpelier’s debt.
That’s a concern to some voters in Calais and Worcester, which have relatively little debt and thus will pay proportionately more of East Montpelier’s.
“East Montpelier, through no particular virtue of its own, gets 50 percent debt relief,” said Scott Thompson, a member of the U-32 school board from Calais. And like Edith Miller said, he’s protective of his elementary school.
So Thompson was disappointed in a court ruling Monday that did not halt the merger process. He says the court challenge continues. And he thinks the debt issue still has legal firepower, because voters in some of the affected towns did not get a chance to say yay or nay.
“In essence what’s happening, the forced merger is imposing a million and a half dollar bond on Calais, without a vote, without any money to show, without any improvements to the school, only an obligation to pay,” he said.
The Calais Elementary school is less than five rutted road miles from East Montpelier Elementary school. And some of Calais’ neighbors in East Montpelier were sympathetic to the argument about debt.
Ellen Knoedler suggested to the East Montpelier meeting that they look at the situation from Calais’ point of view.
“I mean East Montpelier will be golden,” she said. “Our taxes will go down, because other people will be picking up our debt. But I think it’s important to understand why our friends in Calais and Worcester may not be so happy. And I think it’s a reality that Calais and Worcester are afraid that their schools are going to close.”
But East Montpelier voters may also eventually pay a share of the debt that other schools incur, said Rubin Bennett, an East Montpelier school board member.
Sure, East Montpelier may be a winner in the short term from the merger. But “in the long term, we just were first,” Bennet said. “And everybody is going to need to take on debt for their schools, at some point. When I take the longer view, if I lived in a district that is going to need to do significant capital work to my school building, the tax impact on my local taxes will be is less if we’re in a unified district.”
Calais voters and East Montpelier voters also chose different paths on their individual school budgets. Calais offered their spending plan to voters Tuesday. But East Montpelier chose to wait, because of the uncertainty over whether it will be part of the new, unified district in July.
East Montpelier decided to hold a special school meeting in April to vote on the budget.
Bennett explained the reasoning to voters in East Montpelier.
“In order to basically hedge our bets what we’re going to do is warn a budget for April 9,” he said. “So that if the new unified union district is not ready or able to take over operations on time, then we don’t find ourselves in a place where we’re operating a school without voter without voter authorized expenditures of funds.”