First School Merger Votes Cast

Friday, November 06, 2015
Essex, Vt. — Votes on the first school district mergers are in and the results tell a tale of two counties. Voters in Chittenden County overwhelmingly approved the direction Act 46 has taken by saying yes to the unification of school districts Essex Town and Essex Junction with the formerly choice school district of Westford.

In Lamoille County, a merger vote that would have brought together the Elmore and Morristown school districts was derailed by voters who even when faced with a spike in taxes did not want to give up school choice by combining districts.

“Today was an important test for Vermont’s new education reform law,” said Speaker of the House Shap Smith, a Morristown Democrat who is running for governor. “Residents of Essex Junction, Essex Town and Westford voted to become the first towns to create an expanded school district under Act 46.”

Essex Town residents voted 1,154 to 183 in favor of the planned merger Tuesday. In Essex Junction, 1,000 community members approved it while 123 voted against it. And in Westford, which had to give up high school choice, 422 voters came out in favor while 207 did not.

“We are elated at the overwhelming response and we feel like the community has given us a clear mandate to carry out the possibilities and opportunities that we think are there. Now, the hard work begins,” said Brendan Kinney, chair of the study committee that brought the plan to voters.

Not too long ago these same Chittenden communities rejected unification. But merging was already on the minds of community members when Act 46 came along. At first, the current study committee came together around creating a Regional Education District, or RED.

“Even without Act 46 we would see a cost savings by creating a unified district and we could potentially deliver better educational opportunities and experiences for students,” said Kinney.

It is just this kind of dedicated, hard work over time that brings about success, according to Smith.

“They continued to work at it and address the communities’ concerns and now they have success the second time around,” Smith told VTDigger.org. Tuesday’s vote shows that “with the right amount of time and the right amount of work these mergers are going to be successful,” he added.

In Lamoille, where Elmore residents fretted over giving up high school choice the vote came out 197 against to 164 in favor. The vote in Smith’s hometown of Morristown was in favor, but not by much, 251-247.

The Elmore and Morristown vote reflects the spirit of the new education law exactly because the voters came out and decided “no,” Smith said. “I think we should celebrate yesterday’s vote outcomes as proof that Act 46 is working as intended.”

Stuart Weppler, co-chair of the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union study committee that presented the merger plan to the two communities, was bewildered by the decision to significantly raise taxes in order to preserve school choice.

“The school boards recommended a course of action that took into account all these variables but the majority of the people in town exercised their right to vote and said that school choice is more important. But no one has authored an alternative direction and taxes are going to go up by 40 cents in March. I’m not sure people realize the ramifications of the vote they just had,” Weppler said.

School taxes are expected to go up from $1.68 per $100 of property value to $2.04 because they will have maximized the threshold for spending and will have to pay a penalty, according to Weppler, who also sits on the Elmore School Board. “It ends up being over 100 percent increase on our education tax over a five-year period.”

Lamoille towns will still be required to merge into larger districts under Act 46. Elmore and Morristown will have to find new dance partners to comply with the law or if they wait too long the state will decide for them. Knowing this and considering the local landscape, the school board members of both towns thought unification was a good plan.

“If we had another option we would have been presenting it. So, those people in favor of school choice are going to have to step up to the plate now and come up with a viable alternative — or we wait until 2019 and the state will tell us what we are going to do,” Weppler said.

Lamoille South Supervisory Union Superintendent Tracy Wend believes that these communities will find another way because they are deeply committed to their children.

“This is difficult but not divisive. The community really will continue to work together,” she said, adding that the large turnout at the polls shows how much people care and are committed to their shared responsibility for public education.

Weppler remains concerned for the retirees in town who can’t afford a hike in taxes.

“They are going to have to move out of town. The people in favor of choice were well-organized and I guess more determined,” he added.

Wrend said she understands what older residents are facing and said it highlights how difficult this issue is for a number of stakeholders.

“One of the most poignant moments for me, was when an older couple took me by the hand and said they were concerned that they couldn’t stay in Elmore” because the taxes were making it too expensive. “I think this is illustrative of the hard choices that we are grappling with and the way we pay for, govern and deliver public education effectively,” she said.

School choice was also an issue in the Chittenden Central merger. Westford had to give up choice at the high school level for the merger to happen. The majority of Westford students already chose to go to Essex High School, but after 2020 they will all graduate from there. Westford community members also gained the right to have a say in the budget for the high school for the first time.

The Essex Town, Essex Junction, Westford merger will be the first on the accelerated path set out by Act 46. As school boards around the state hunker down to work on a way forward, Kinney says to be very clear as to what issues relate to the study committee, “get the stakeholders involved early and get all the issues on the table. And be respectful of the fact that different communities may have different concerns as it relates to unification.”