The Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts are inching toward gaining another year to sort out details of a state-ordered merger.
The Vermont Legislature is discussing a one-year delay in mergers, which should provide enough time for a decision in the districts’ joint lawsuit against the Vermont State Board of Education.
A bill to delay forced mergers until July 1, 2020, was still being discussed by press time Wednesday. That bill must also pass the Senate before it goes to Gov. Phil Scott for his signature.
Tracy Wrend, superintendent of the Lamoille South Supervisory Union, which oversees both districts, praised Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, for “exceptionally hard” work lobbying for the bill.
An amendment to the House bill that would offer a year’s time to every forced merger around the state put forth by Scheuermann failed in the House Wednesday by a vote of 74 to 69.
An amendment from the House Committee on Education would allow a delay for districts whose constituencies never voted on whether to merge.
Places that voted to merge would not get a delay.
“A delay is important because it would give us the time we need to provide the best services to our students, teachers, staff and community members,” Cara Zimmerman, the Stowe School Board chair, told legislators at a hearing last week. “The compressed timelines laid out in statute make it difficult to both appeal and comply with the law. In particular, (Lamoille South) faced uncertainty as to the state board’s decision until the last possible day, giving us an even shorter window to prepare for a possible merger.”
The merger is supposed to kick in July 1 of this year.
With the merger in limbo, Zimmerman asked, which school organization should apply for grants to fund summer programs? From which school organization’s accounts should employees be paid?
“We are also concerned about the impact of this compressed timeline on community support for our schools, which will ultimately impact students,” Zimmerman said. “Community support is an essential ingredient for student success and excellent schools. And, we believe that communities support their schools when they understand what is going on with them. The rushed nature of this merger makes it difficult to effectively provide the information that the community needs in the small window of time we were given.”
She’s also concerned about the merger’s impacts on tax rates, which are expected to go up in Elmore and Morristown without providing any significant benefits to residents of those towns.
“Our experience with the Elmore-Morristown merger tells us that, even if the forced merger moves forward, we won’t have adequate time to properly implement it by July 1, 2019,” Zimmerman said.
“I wish I could convey the fear that my constituents have expressed around this law,” said Rep. David Yacovone, D-Morristown.
He has traveled to all 251 municipalities in Vermont, and said some of them looked more “tired” and “worn” than others, and those towns did not have schools. “That is the fear my constituents have. Their ask is not big. They simply want more time.”
Scheuermann expressed her frustration from the House floor Wednesday about a misconception that the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown districts are crunched for time because they didn’t comply with Act 46, when in reality, they were caught up in the process with the State Board of Education, and didn’t learn a merger would be required until Nov. 30.
“Act 46 did not require preferred structures. It did not require mergers. The only reason it passed this legislative body is it contained alternative structures. We did everything necessary, and at the last minute we had the rug pulled out from under us,” Scheuermann said.
There are no new developments on the Stowe School Board’s joint suit with the Elmore-Morristown School Board against the Vermont Board of Education.
More than 25 other school districts have filed a similar lawsuit against the state.
The court case may proceed slowly, and “I think it will be slower than people want it to be,” Wrend said.
In the Legislature, meanwhile, it’s likely the bill calling for a one-year merger delay will be modified somewhat as it moves through the process.
Among the school board’s priorities now is ensuring people know that Feb. 26 is the date to vote on articles of agreement for the brand-new Lamoille South Unified Union District, which is being formed in case the merger actually occurs.
That vote includes decisions about which students go to which school, how to handle any school closings in future years, and the makeup of the new school board (see related story, Page 7).
Ride another day
In other school news, Stowe High School principal Chris Oleks said Stowe High students heard a presentation Monday from Ride Another Day, an initiative by Wyoming parents Kelli and Chauncy Johnson, who lost their daughter, Elise, at age 5 in a skiing accident.
Kelli was also badly injured; she was hospitalized for months following her coma, and her arm is still paralyzed.
The couple visit mountain towns and speak to high school kids about skiing and riding safely, and the dangers of reckless sportsmanship.
“It was tough, but good, and a really important thing for kids to hear,” Oleks said. “We spend so much time on that mountain.”
“My hope is to truly get this message out there to others,” Kelli Johnson said. “If anyone just hears this message even once, they will hopefully change how they act and conduct themselves out on the mountain.”
Ride Another Day is conducted through the National Ski Areas Association and is funded in part by a sizable donation from the Johnson family.
Other board business
In other business Monday, the Stowe School Board:
• Agreed to pay $15,000 for a study of the fire alarm system at Stowe Middle/High Schools, which needs to be replaced this summer. Pearson & Associates Consulting Engineers in Stowe says it will take $115,000 to complete the replacement.
• Warned an informational meeting about the Stowe School District’s proposed $12.5 million budget Feb. 26 at 5:30 p.m. at the Akeley Memorial Building, in conjunction with the Stowe Select Board’s informational meeting.