One of John F. Kennedy’s Last Acts: President Signed Dresden District Law Shortly Before Assassination

Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Hanover — One of the last bills President Kennedy signed before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, created the Dresden Interstate School District, which serves students from Hanover and Norwich and which many believe was the first interstate school district in the country — or at least the first to be approved by Congress.

Kennedy’s signing of the bill, which took place in mid-November 1963, brought to an end a long, complex and often tumultuous series of legislative and legal hurdles that started about 15 years earlier.

Norwich realized that it needed a bigger high school to accommodate a growing student population. The options, debated in endless town meetings, included building a brand-new school in Norwich or trying to work out an arrangement with Hartford or Hanover to get better access to their high schools.

The idea for an interstate school district was discussed at a White House education conference during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. However, there was one big obstacle: the “compact clause” of the U.S. Constitution. According to Article I, section 10, “No state shall, without the consent of Congress … enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power. …”

And before Congress would give its consent, towns and their respective state legislatures had to approve of the arrangement.

Government officials on both sides of the Connecticut River got to work immediately, along with some prominent Dartmouth College professors, such as William Whitney Ballard, a professor emeritus of biology who at one time was chairman of the Norwich School Board, and mathematics professor John Kemeny, who later became Dartmouth’s president. A Hanover lawyer, Jack Stebbins, helped with the innumerable drafts of the legislation.

“Bill Ballard was son-in-law of former Sen. (Ralph) Flanders (R-Vt.) who had great connections in Washington,” recalled William Zimmerman, of New London, an education administrator hired at age 29 to be the first superintendent of the Dresden district by a selection committee headed by Kemeny.

The two communities, and both state legislatures, approved the idea, and the authorization bill moved easily through Congress.

The president signed the bill, PL 88-177, on Nov. 13, 1963, according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. (It was not his last bill. He signed eight public laws and 11 “private laws” after the Dresden bill, the library said.)

When the bill became law, a collective sigh could be heard in the Upper Valley.

But not for long.

Lawyers for a Boston bonding brokerage firm, which had been retained to help Hanover and Norwich with the bond proposals necessary to pay for upgrading the Hanover schools, raised questions about the legality of an interstate district as it applied to bond issues. Supreme courts in both states eventually declared the process legal, and the Dresden School District was born.

“However, there were still more problems,” Zimmerman said. “It took time to upgrade and expand Hanover High School. Then we had to synchronize teacher certification requirements and curriculum standards between the two states because those things were different in each state. I was traveling a lot between Montpelier and Concord.”

Then a new problem developed.

Social Security offices in Concord refused to honor checks from the Dresden district. “They never heard of an interstate school district, even though we sent them copies of all the legislation and court orders,” Zimmerman said. “So then we tried clearing the checks through the Social Security office in Montpelier. They also rejected them. This was becoming serious because we had people retiring and they needed that money.

“Finally, we appealed to the main Social Security office outside Baltimore,” he said. “A half-dozen lawyers worked on the issue. Many weeks later, they produced pages of the worst legal gobbledy-gook you have ever seen. The bottom line was, they decided Dresden could be considered as a separate state. That worked and the checks cleared.”

Zimmerman, who grew up in Keene, N.H., left the Dresden job after five years to become dean of the Northeastern University graduate school in Boston. Now retired at age 80, he still plays trumpet and trombone in three jazz bands.

Ford Daley, of Norwich, who taught six science classes at Hanover High School after the Dresden compact became operational, recalled a different problem.

“Some working-class people in Norwich were not very happy about Dresden,” he said. “They would have preferred their kids to go to Hartford, which had a good vocational program, or to Thetford, which had an agricultural program. It took a while for them to get used to the change. But Norwich was changing of course. … More academic and professional parents (were) moving in and wanting their kids to go to Hanover High.”

While the Dresden district is widely believed to be the nation’s first congressionally approved interstate school district, a school serving West College Corner, Indiana, and College Corner, Ohio, began operation in 1893 with two school boards overseeing the school and state funding apportioned by enrollment.

In 1998, the Rivendell Interstate School District joined three Vermont towns, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire, with Orford in New Hampshire.

Where did the name Dresden come from? According to some historians, in Colonial days there was a settlement in the Upper Valley consisting of several towns on both sides of the river, extending to where Claremont and Windsor are today. It included German settlers, who it is believed inspired the name Dresden, as well as Hanover.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 19 to reflect new information about when Kennedy signed the Dresden bill and how many other bills he signed after that date.

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