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Halifax, Readsboro Will Vote To Break Up Act 46 Merger

The exterior of the Halifax Elementary School with snow on the ground.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
The Halifax Elementary School has 85 students this year. Voters in Halifax and Readsboro will vote in the coming weeks to dissolve their Act 46 unified district.

Less than two years after Halifax and Readsboro approved an Act 46 merger, the two towns have scheduled public votes to dissolve the district. These are the first Vermont towns that are looking to dissolve an Act 46 merger through townwide votes.
Halifax is voting on Dec. 30 to withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District while Readsboro residents will vote on Jan. 20. If both towns agree to dissolve the district, then the State Board of Education will have the final say on whether they can separate.

Readsboro merged with Halifax in June 2017. Halifax has 85 kids pre-K through eighth grade, and Readsboro has only 40 students.

Helyn Strom-Henriksen, who represents Readsboro on the unified district board, said the problems started when Readsboro did an engineering assessment of their school building in town earlier this year.

"The architectural plan said that it would cost $1.5 million to $2 million to renovate the school," Strom-Henriksen said. "Halifax residents began to question the members of their board as to why they had to be responsible and have their taxes go up based on something that was out of their control."

The relationship deteriorated further this summer when the Readsboro seventh- and eighth-graders were moved to Halifax with little input from parents.

"Then we spoke and we said, 'well maybe it’s time to think about dissolving the union,'" Strom-Henriksen said.

Residents from each town turned in a petition requesting the special votes.

"It's just really not any benefit to anybody. It's not really working," said Homer Sumner, who represents Halifax and is chairman of the school board.

 

"It's just really not any benefit to anybody. It's not really working." — Homer Sumner, SVUU school district board chair

Sumner said the two towns were never really excited about merging — but, like a lot of districts in Vermont, Halifax and Readsboro didn't want the state to force a different merger. Both towns are small and isolated, and a merger with a larger district could have lead to the closing of their schools.

"We didn't fully embrace it at all, but the state was really pushing hard for consolidation," Sumner said. "So Readsboro and Halifax still forged ahead on, kind of an arranged marriage, through [Act] 46."

Halifax approved the Act 46 plan by a wide margin, while in Readsboro it squeaked through by only 10 votes. But at this point, Sumner said the people in Halifax are already regretting that decision.

"I've been sort of told this by numerous taxpayers in Halifax that Halifax is kind of supplementing Readsboro's taxpayers, which in a way they sort of are," Sumner said.

Though it would seem to be a huge loophole to Act 46, leaving a merged district just after joining it is in fact legal, according to a Vermont Agency of Education spokesman.

The state says if they leave, Readsboro and Halifax would lose their Act 46 tax breaks and suffer other financial consequences.

"I'm worried about them taking these votes because I'm not sure what is going to be improved by doing that." — Rep. Laura Sibilia

Windham-Bennington Rep. Laura Sibilia — who represents Readsboro in the Vermont Legislature — said challenges like declining enrollment, school facility maintenance, and finding and retaining staff are especially hard for small, rural districts like Readsboro and Halifax.

Sibilia school district consolidation is not a silver bullet that can take care of all of that, but she thinks it does make sense to try to tackle these issues over a wider region.

"I'm worried about them taking these votes because I'm not sure what is going to be improved by doing that," Sibilia said. "And the challenges around population loss, the challenges around the financing mechanism, those are not going away. And so, you know, it seems like we're going back to what we were doing — and what we were doing is not really serving the kids, you know, as best as we can."

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