To head off mergers, some communities consider shuttering schools
GROTON — Even in the mid-afternoon, voters arrived at a steady clip at the Groton Community Building on Tuesday to cast their ballots.
But by most accounts, no particular candidate in the state's primary - which typically sees dismal turnout statewide - animated the town's voters to come out at above-average rates. Plenty of those who voted, in fact, didn't even bother to choose from the candidates.
"A lot of the absentee ballots only voted for the school, when we opened them. Not all of them, but a majority," said assistant town clerk Carrie Peters.
Groton, Wells River and Ryegate, which together operate the pre-K-12 Blue Mountain Union School, on Tuesday held a non-binding, advisory vote on closing their high school to prevent a forced merger under Act 46. It was passed overwhelmingly - 443 to 183.
Around the state, at least half a dozen communities are mulling similar measures, since districts with different operating structures can't be consolidated together by the state. Proponents of the strategy argue their schools would be closed by a consolidated, regional school board anyway - better to close now, they say, and at least retain their local school board.
"Our high school's closed. We just don't know it yet," said Blue Mountain Union school board member Brent Abare. The Vermont Agency of Education has recommended Blue Mountain merge with the Bradford, Newbury and Oxbow High districts, and many BMU community members fear its high school will be shuttered to send students to Oxbow.
Many simply envision closing their school and tuitioning out their students, as in the Blue Mountain case. But some - including in Windham, Franklin and Barnard - are also tentatively exploring closing their school and later re-opening as a private school.
In Windham, school board member Carolyn Partridge said the two full-time teachers in the district's tiny K-6 school of just 16 students are already on board if the community decides to privatize, and that the board has already met with a representative from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to see what accreditation would entail.
But she also stressed becoming an independent school was an absolute last resort, and that the board had taken no action on the matter yet. The district is holding a community forum on the subject Aug. 27.
"I would much prefer to not go through this. I would much prefer to remain a public school," she said. "But I'm afraid that because of the process that we are being backed into a corner."
In Franklin, a citizen petition proposes to transfer the school's assets to the town, and to shut down the elementary school in order to reopen it as a private school. Jay Denault, a former school board member who helped write the petition, said he'd gotten enough signatures within hours of dropping off the petition at the Franklin General Store.
Bill Mayo, the store's owner, said the store had been abuzz with conversation about Act 46. He had no doubt, he said, that the community would privatize to block a merger.
"They signed that petition in my store so fast," Mayo said.
Mill Moore, the executive director of the Independent Schools Association, said he'd been contacted by a handful of communities thinking about privatizing.
Flipping from a public school to a private school is possible - most refer to it as the North Bennington model, after that town did just that back in 2013. But it's "extremely difficult," Moore said, particularly because enrollment can be expected to take a dip when students have an open choice about where to go.
"It's probably not practical. Especially if you're talking about small districts," he said.
Act 46 is in its final phase, and the state is now tasked with deciding what to do with those districts that have not already merged voluntarily. Then-acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey has recommended a total of 18 forced mergers to the State Board of Education, which will have the final say. The board has embarked on a listening tour to get feedback from local communities, and must make a final decision by Nov. 30.
The state board is also charged with crafting default "articles of agreement" for districts created through forced mergers. The document will operate as a sort of constitution for the new districts, and will be watched closely by local communities to see what protections against closure are included for small schools.
State Board chairperson Krista Huling said she's heard of several districts thinking about closing their schools in order to avoid a forced merger, and is worried communities could be acting without all the facts.
"When schools are making decisions out of fear, that isn't always the best time to make a decision. You need to sometimes step back and really think about the long-term consequences," she said.
She also warned that closing a school in order to retain a school board could give communities autonomy in name only. Small communities who join consolidated boards may be in the minority, but they would still have a voice in how the schools their children attend are run. Districts who tuition have no say in the operation of the schools they send their students to.
"They're just going to write a check," she said.
Huling added she worried about equity. If a school is closed and students can pick whatever school they want, students without transportation will have, in effect, far fewer options than their peers.
"My biggest worry is when you flip or you go to choice is - is transportation guaranteed?" she said.
It was a concern shared by Brenda Powers, a former Blue Mountain school board member and Groton resident.
"All of the kids that would be eligible - if we're forced to go to school choice - not all of them come from wealthy families. So that voucher is going to do them absolutely no good. They're still going to have to go to Oxbow. They're not going to truck them to St. Johnsbury or to Danville or to Thetford or anywhere," she said.
But despite her worries about equity, Powers said she voted in favor of closing the school to head off a merger. Better to go to choice, she said, than be consolidated against their will.
"I'm disgusted with them forcing us to merge," she said.
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