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Reporter Debrief: Why Some Vermont Towns Want To Leave Their School Districts

A Please Complete Act 46 Survey ASAP sign outside of Putney Central School
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Act 46 was passed in 2015, though many Vermont towns were reluctant to comply.

Over the last few weeks, five towns in Vermont have held special elections to determine whether or not they want to leave their recently merged school districts.

These potential dissolutions of districts could threaten to challenge the state's Act 46 goals of educational equity and cost containment. And it remains to be seen if the Legislature will attempt to close the loophole that's allowing towns to break up.

Vermont Edition host Jane Lindholm spoke with VPR reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman about the results of these elections and how they fit into the broader statewide picture of Act 46. Their interview is below. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jane Lindholm: So let's talk a little bit more about what Act 46 purports to do, and then we can get into why for some towns, it's just not working. So generally speaking, what is Act 46 and has it been going well?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Well, Act 46 was passed back in 2015. And, you know, it's kind of interesting to look at the arc of how all of this came about and what lawmakers and educators said throughout the whole thing. The discussions started way back, looking at Vermont demographics, understanding that we're losing kids. We have a lot of small schools that are expensive to run. And I think that's what kicked off the conversations as they were getting into Act 46 and it was rolling out.

Well, expensive to run and and in some cases not able to offer children the same opportunities that they might be able to have in a a larger school with more resources.

Right. And that's what rose to the top, is that as people backed away and said, you know, this probably isn't going to save a lot of money, that's the way that they they tried to sell it: that smaller schools just have fewer opportunities for kids, especially when you're getting into middle school. A lot of these K through eight schools have middle schools with, you know, 20, 40 kids. And there are fewer options for them, for music, for foreign language, STEM, et cetera. So the idea was: Act 46 is all about bringing the boards together. So instead of having a single board over each of these schools, you have one board working with four or five or six schools and trying to get them to work together and share resources. So that was the basic idea, what what was behind all of this.

And it's been a couple of years in the making now. I mean, this has been ongoing for several years now. Generally speaking, do you think it's been going well?

Yeah, you know, it's really hard to say. It is really new. The the earliest school districts that got on board started in 2015, 2016. And I think if you ask them, they would say that it is going well. They embrace the law. They're seeing a lot of efficiencies in how their schools are operating. You know, it's important to point out we haven't seen a lot of small schools closing. And so a lot of the school districts who were reluctant to do this have only been doing it for a year or so now. So it's kind of hard to say. But again, I think the the folks that embrace the idea would say that it is working for them.

And then, of course, there are the communities that were forced into it who, you know, in many cases are not appreciating the way the law is working for them. Let's talk about two communities that really push the boundaries of what state law allows when it comes to Act 46, Halifax and Readsoboro, and the actions in Halifax and Readsboro have kind of opened up the possibility of merged districts around the state essentially divorcing. So tell us what happened there.

Right. So last year, Halifax and Readsboro voted to break up their district. Halifax and Readsboro are two very small Windham County towns way down by the Massachusetts state line. And it's important to start out by saying that these towns, they never wanted to merge in the first place. They did vote to do it, but they reluctantly did so. Back when Act 46 was rolling out, the state was saying that if you don't merge, we're going to force you to. And ultimately that is what happened. And so Readsboro and Halifax decide to give it a try. You know, we're going to we're going to see, we don't want to be forced into something we don't want. But it never really worked out for them. There's a winding mountain road between the two towns. They tried sharing resources, teachers and moving kids between the two schools. That didn't work out. And Readsboro also has a big construction project they're going to be tackling in the next year or two. People in Halifax didn't want to pay for that. That's part of Act 46, when these districts merge, construction projects are paid amongst all the towns. So Halifax and Readsboro found this law that predates Act 46, that says that if towns want to get out of a union district, they're allowed to. If the voters say we want to do this, and then all of the other towns in that district agree, the state board can't say no. So Halifax and Readsboro held their votes and the state board, it became apparent that there was no other option, they approved that breakup.

Yeah, I mean, which was fascinating because as you said, you know, that that law on the books predated Act 46. It wasn't something that was designed to be a loophole, or a blow up your district kind of clause in Act 46. And so now other towns are using the playbook from Halifax and Readsboro to work toward, in some cases, breaking apart their merged districts as well. And now we get to the five towns who have had special votes in the last couple of weeks for members of those municipalities to vote on whether they want to stay in or get out. The towns are Westminster, Ripton, Weybridge, Newbury and Tunbridge. So Howard, go through the results for us.

Yeah. So what happened in Readsboro and Halifax really caught the attention of a lot of people, especially the folks who are opposed to Act 46 very broadly. These votes happened over the past month or so. Two towns voted to leave and three voted to stay. As you said, towns of Westminster and Newbury both held votes. And both of those towns opposed the merger. Both of those towns were forced to merge. And both of those towns were also parties in the lawsuit that challenged Act 46 that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court did uphold the law and said that the state could merge the districts.

But there were different results from those votes. Newbury residents voted 169 to 140, so it's kind of close, to stay in the district. Newbury is in a district with Bradford. It's a two-town district and they've had a pretty rocky go of it. They've had budgets voted down. Taxes have gone up in those communities, not because of Act 46, just because they've been losing kids. But after it was all said and done, Newbury decided to stick with it and try it out.

Westminster, on the other hand, voted overwhelmingly to break up the district. The vote there was 200 to 58. And Westminster, like Newbury, just was never into the law. They never even really fully have  voted for their full wide board. So now, under the law, the same thing that happened in Readsboro and Halifax, the towns of Athens and Grafton now have to approve this break up. And if that happens, this Westminster case will once again go before the state board and the state board will have to do it unless it's changed.

So you put together Westminster and Newbury because of the you know, the the feelings in those communities about Act 46 to begin with. Let's also put Ripton and Weybridge together as we talk about those results, because they're in the same merged district. But again, they had different results in their special elections.

Right. Ripton and Weybridge are members of Addison Central, communities around Middlebury. And what's also interesting to look at is both of those towns approveD the merger. Back when Act 46 was coming together, Ripton and Weybridge both said, you know, we'll give it a shot and see. But over the past year or so, the district as a whole has a plan to close some of the smaller schools, including schools in Ripton and Weybridge and Cornwall, I believe. So folks in Ripton got a really organized campaign together to get this vote going. And Weybridge as well held a vote. But the vote was split there. Ripton said they wanted to leave the district, Weybridge says they're going to stick around. Part of the reason might be that Ripton is kind of a mountain town. It's farther away from Middlebury. Weybridge is right next door to the Middlebury school. And if the Weybridge school closes, the kids won't have a long way to go. So Ripton wants to go it alone. And so now all of the other towns in Addison Central are going to have to approve that or not before it goes for the state board.

The last vote was held in Tunbridge and there the voters also turned it down. Tunbridge is also in a small district with the town of Chelsea. And it was a very close vote there, it was 135 to 144. They've also had some problems with budgets being voted down, and taxes. But Tonbridge is going to stick in the district for now.

I also just want to point out by way of disclosure that, Howard, you have a family member who works in the Westminster district. But as we talk about these communities, you know, you mentioned for the towns that voted out, Westminster and Ripton, this isn't the final step. They say we want to leave. That doesn't mean they get to leave. And not only because there may be some action by the state later on down the road, but because they are now relying on the other communities in their districts to say, yes, you can leave.

Right. And it's hard to say what's going to happen there. In Westminster it's a little simpler because there's only two small towns dealing with that, Athens and Grafton. But in Addison Central, you have six other towns that are going to have to approve it. And we're going to have to see what happens there.

And there's a kind of a different situation happening in Brattleboro in the Windham Southeast school district. Can you talk about that?

And that's really interesting. This happened at their meeting earlier this month. Windham Southeast school district is made up of four towns: Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney. And this is another district that was just strongly opposed to Act 46. All four of those towns voted down the proposed merger. Ultimately, the Windham Southeast district was one of the towns that was forced to merge and the school board members have just not really embraced it. And when the word got out about Readsboro and Halifax, they quickly jumped on this, trying to get this vote in.

So what they're doing now is they're trying to get a question onto the town meeting day ballot in each of the four towns. And if each of the four towns votes to get out, then it's going to get really complicated. It'll be interesting to see how the attorneys handle this, because Putney is going to have to say yes to Dummerston, Guilford and Brattleboro. And Brattleboro is going to have to say yes to Putney, Dummerston and Guilford. So it'll be interesting how that's all going to roll out on the ballot. But again, as the law is written right now, if that all happens and if the towns approve the breakup, the state board is going to have to dissolve this whole district, which by far would be the the largest district broken up under this new loophole we're talking about.

So, Howard, how do these few communities that have been moving to leave their districts fit into the larger picture of now what the state may try to do moving forward? Because, you know, it was a struggle in some cases to get all of the Vermont communities to comply with Act 46. And this could pose kind of a big issue and problem for the state.

Yeah, it was really emotional and time consuming. And, you know, it's hard to kind of loop it all together because each of these districts kind of have their own issues. You know, in some districts, it's about small schools closing. In some districts it's about taxes. In some districts it's just about local control and about people wanting local boards, wanting to serve for their local boards. So. It's also important to point out, as we said at the top of the show, is that, you know, it is working in a lot of towns. So I don't think that this is going to be like an avalanche of districts breaking up. But I think the ones that do want to get out of it, they do have a way right now.

And what do you think lawmakers and the state board might do?

So when the state board of education was considering the Halifax-Readsboro break up, you know, they were as surprised as anyone when you were listening to the meeting, and their hands were tied. They had to do this, but they talked about how that this this should be looked at. So the state board of education wrote a letter tothe Senate and House Education Committees, and they want lawmakers to look at it. I spoke to John Carroll. He's chairman of the state board. You know, and he points out that this older law was written so long before Act 46, that he wants lawmakers to think about it. And this is what he told me:

"The legislature's values and thinking about school districts and school governance has evolved enormously. And so the world has changed since that original legislation that permits this disaggregation was passed. And so we have simply brought it to the attention of the General Assembly to say this is something you might want to look at."

So it's going to going to be hard because obviously the education committees have a lot on their plates with COVID. They've got a lot thinking about schools, trying to get them back open in April. And it's also a question of, is there appetite among lawmakers to start talking about Act 46 again? But it's a fine line because it does seem like, you know, there should be a way for a town to get out of a district. And the law says now if everyone agrees, they should do it. So I don't know if they're going to give the state board a little more authority or if they're going to kind of try to set up a checklist. It's going to be interesting to watch how they sort through it all.

Correction 4:20 p.m. In this interview, Howard Weiss-Tisman said Cornwall would be the next school to close in the Addison Central School District. The actual school that might close is Bridport. 

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss Tisman @hweisstisman.

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