In unusual move, board votes to temporarily close Vt. school amid staffing challenges



Published: 12-19-2023 3:23 AM

Modified: 12-20-2023 12:02 PM

School board members have decided to temporarily shutter Windham Elementary School after administrators struggled to fill staffing positions at the tiny school.

The three-person Windham School Board voted Thursday evening to close the 15-student school and send kids to Townshend Elementary, roughly 10 miles away. Students will continue to attend Windham Elementary through next week and will begin at Townshend in the new year.

“This is a short-term emergency measure,” said Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent Bob Thibault at the board meeting. “It’s temporary, and it is the intent of the board to re-operate next school year. This is not a permanent decision.”

The vote was 2-1, with Abigail Pelton, the chair of the three-person Windham board, the sole vote against closing the school. She declined to comment Friday. 

The immediate reason for the closure was simple: the school is struggling to find staff. Windham Elementary usually employs three people: a teaching principal, a teacher, and an administrative assistant. 

Jenna Cramer, the teaching principal, was placed on administrative leave in mid-October, however, just weeks after beginning in the role. Parents said that Cramer had played a music video that included drinking, smoking and violence during class, and the board fired her in November. Cramer is appealing that decision, according to the superintendent.

The other teacher is on a provisional teaching license and is supposed to be supervised by a licensed principal. A search for a replacement for Cramer has come up short, however. 

Outside of staffing challenges, however, Windham has been wrangling over the fate of the school for years. 

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Some parents and community members believe the school should be permanently closed. The institution is too small to effectively educate kids, they argue, and maintaining it is expensive for residents. 

Proponents of the school, meanwhile, say that keeping Windham Elementary running is key to a healthy community, and that the tiny school offers students a unique and intimate education that few other places can.

A group of parents is currently suing the town of Windham and the state over the school, saying that its students are not receiving an appropriate education and should receive state tuition money to attend schools elsewhere. That case is ongoing.

On Thursday, Daniel Roth, a Windham board member, said that the decision to close the school temporarily could prevent the state Agency of Education from taking even more drastic action — such as closing the school permanently or forcing it into another district.

“We as a community, we as Windham, may lose the power that we have to direct our own district,” Roth said. 

Lindsey Hedges, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, told VTDigger in an email that closing a school due to staffing challenges is “indeed a unique occurrence.”

Hedges did not answer questions about the agency’s stance on Windham Elementary, but she pointed to Vermont statute laying out the options if a school is failing to meet standards. According to that statue, the agency is empowered to combine districts, close schools, or “assume administrative control” over a school.

Thibault, the superintendent, said that state officials have been paying close attention to events in Windham. In communications with the district, “they reminded us of their statutory power,” Thibault said in an interview. “That’s probably the best way to put that.”