In Essex County, A Small School District Looks To Merge Across State Lines
Since Act 46 was passed by the Legislature in 2015, small school districts across the state have had to make difficult decisions about whether to merge rural schools. In some parts of the state, geography creates some challenging decisions about how to do so.The Northeast Kingdom town of Canaan is too isolated to benefit from a school district merger within Vermont.
This winter, a planning committee is finishing up a proposal for what would be the third Vermont-New Hampshire interstate school district. Proponents of the plan hope it’ll be enough to maintain a school system in an area where the number of students is steadily dwindling.
Karen Conroy's office is in Canaan. At 33-square-miles, with fewer than 1,000 people, the town sits far enough north in Essex County that if you visit, you might get a text from your cell phone provider welcoming you to Canada.
Conroy is the superintendent of the Essex North Supervisory Union, a small district that's getting smaller.
“We currently have enrollment of 164 students in Canaan,” Conroy said. “Pre-K through 12, and that includes students coming in from our neighboring communities.”
According to data from the Vermont Agency of Education, enrollment in the district has been dropping precipitously. It’s gone down 41% in the past 15 years, and 21% in the last decade.
Foreign language classes have had to be cut, and there has been talk of getting rid of music programming.
Canaan schools fit the bill for a merger under Act 46 – Vermont’s 2015 school district consolidation law – but there’s no one near enough to merge with.
At least, not in Vermont.
“They refer to us as ‘geographically isolated’,” Conroy explained. But, “If you look at our geographic area, we have – within 20 miles of each other – three high schools, four elementary schools, two supervisory unions, two central offices.”
Those other schools lie across the Connecticut River, in New Hampshire’s SAU #7, which is based in Colebrook. There are just over 400 students in that district, and enrollment there has also been on the decline.
Brain LaPerle is the Colebrook School Board chair. He’s part of a group trying to address these problems by combining Vermont’s Essex North Supervisory Union with New Hampshire’s SAU #7.
“The ultimate goal,” LaPerle said, is “to get the students together into a single high school with a CTE [Career Technical Education] center connected to it. That's going to just provide more opportunities than we have now, mainly by pooling resources.”
The Connecticut River Collaborative Planning Committee has spent two years planning the merger, which would create the third interstate school district between Vermont and New Hampshire. The other two – Rivendell Interstate School District and Dresden, also called SAU 70 – are both in the Upper Valley.
CRCPC committee chair Kyle Daley says combining districts would make schooling in the area more efficient in the face of population decline. The high schools in Canaan, Vt. and Colebrook, N.H. are just eight miles apart, and sometimes compete for scarce resources.
“It’s hard to find an English teacher, and sometimes Canaan will hire one from Colebrook or Colebrook will hire one from Canaan,” Daley said. “And it's led us to have positions that we can't fill.”
"It's hard to find an English teacher, and sometimes Canaan will hire one from Colebrook, or Colebrook will hire one from Canaan. And it's led us to have positions that we can't fill." - Kyle Daley, Connecticut River Collaborative Planning Committee Chair
Daley runs Solomon’s Store, a small supermarket on the New Hampshire bank of the Connecticut River, which his great-grandfather opened in 1923.
He operates with the consciousness of someone who lives and works on a border; when he talks about the communities involved in the interstate proposal, he’s careful to note the state where each one is located.
Daley graduated from Canaan High School, and knows firsthand about the longstanding sports rivalry between his alma mater and the nearby high schools in Colebrook and Pittsburg, N.H.. Superintendent Karen Conroy knows that kind of thing will be hard for communities to give up.
“It's really hard, because they take such pride in their school systems and in their communities, their athletic programs,” Conroy said. “We're going to need a new name, a new mascot, and really take a unified front instead of the divide across the river and between our communities.”
There’s a host of practicalities to iron out as well, like: Which town gets the high school? What upgrades do buildings need? What would the new school board look like?
That work is at a critical point, according to committee member Brian LaPerle.
“This is an ongoing story at this point. We're getting in that part of the story where it's like, ‘OK, I want to start making some decisions,’” LaPerle said.
Meanwhile, as far as Hannah Nadeau is concerned, Canaan and Colebrook are pretty much the same place already. She’s 17 and a junior at Canaan.
“If I'm being completely honest,” she said, “half of the friends I have currently are from Colebrook, which is not even where I live.”
Agreements exist between the school districts that allow students like her to go across the river for classes they want to take; she’s in physics at Colebrook right now.
The planning committee is working now to finalize the articles of agreement that would govern the new district. They hope to have those done by spring. And the committee did recently decide on a name, so if the plan gets state approval, voters could be asked to make a decision about the Northern Borders Interstate School District later this year.
For her part, Nadeau thinks an interstate district could help her three younger siblings have more opportunities in school and make more friends. She and her classmates joke about the differences between Vermont and New Hampshire.
“We laugh about how Vermont people are hippies and people in New Hampshire so much better,” she said, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘No, not really. We're pretty much the same.’”
Digital producer Abagael Giles produced the infographics for this story.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.