Sound those wedding bells; it’s an arranged marriage for the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts, and neither is happy about it.
Despite more than a year of preparation and planning by the school boards in both districts, the Vermont State Board of Education has ruled that the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts must merge, no matter what voters want.
The news is a “shock,” said Penny Jones, vice chair of the Elmore-Morristown board; “incredibly disappointing,” said Cara Zimmerman, chair of the Stowe board.
The two districts were confident they had made a compelling case to remain standalone districts; they were accomplishing all the goals of Act 46, the state school-merger law — efficient, effective and fair, with broad opportunities for students. The two districts filed a long, detailed report, with the help of a consultant, to make that case.
The interim head of the state education department supported that view, but this week the State Board of Education overruled her.
“It’s not very compelling,” said William Mathis, vice chair of the state board, of Stowe and Elmore-Morristown’s argument.
Act 46, passed in 2015, requires school districts to consider merging with their neighbors to form districts with at least 900 students.
The Stowe School Board and Elmore-Morristown Unified Union School Board worked for more than a year to show their schools already meet the goals of Act 46.
Elmore and Morristown merged just after the passage of Act 46, but enrollment remained just under 900 students.
Essentially, the state board ruled that since Stowe and Elmore-Morristown could merge, then they must.
The decision is still preliminary, though, and the state board has until Nov. 30 to change its mind.
A Vermont Board of Education meeting Nov. 15 in Williamstown will provide opportunity for public comment.
The board’s decision
The decision is in line with the language of Act 46, said Krista Huling, chair of the state board.
“The only way to legally merge a district is if they have the same operating systems. If they have the same operating systems, it’s possible. In the report, the secretary had said it was both” possible and practicable for Stowe to merge with Elmore-Morristown, Huling said.
Heather Bouchey, the interim secretary of education who issued her recommendation earlier this year, had noted that Elmore and Morristown were still coming to grips with their merger, and there was no need to complicate things further by throwing Stowe into the mix.
“When we look at the law itself and how to apply it equally around the state, we felt that it was possible and practicable. We didn’t feel that merger from 2015 was a barrier,” Huling said.
One board member thought giving Stowe a pass on a merger amounted to special treatment.
“We’ve heard that. I don’t think that factored into that decision. The decision was on the merits of the merger,” Huling said.
William Mathis, vice chair of the state board, was a little more blunt.
“Heather Bouchey’s recommendation was unique, and it would not be fair to others who had worked so hard,” he said. “My view was that all the other districts in the state have been asked to merge, and Stowe is no exception, but they haven’t been making much effort and they don’t seem to be making much of an effort to work with Elmore and Morristown,” Mathis said.
Might the state board reverse its decision before Nov. 30?
“I think it would take a good amount of data to make that happen,” Mathis said.
The merger order stunned local government officials and the members of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school boards.
“I hadn’t heard anything about it, I think everyone was blindsided,” State Rep. Gary Nolan, R-Morristown, who represents Elmore and Morristown in the House, said.
“Everything we’d been told at meetings, the info we were getting” all pointed to leaving the two districts along, Jones said. “It came way out of left field.”
The Elmore-Morristown board meets next Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. — Election Day — and the merger order, and how to proceed, will be the hot topic.
Jones also thinks a merger could have a negative financial impact and could make it harder to get voter approval for school building improvements being considered for Stowe and Morristown.
Tracy Wrend, superintendent of schools in Lamoille South Supervisory Union, which encompasses all three towns, was still absorbing the news Tuesday morning.
“I am disappointed with the state board’s decision, and somewhat surprised,” Wrend said. “It sounds like the decision was based at least in part on scrutiny and feedback from other regions of the state, wondering or questioning why the secretary’s recommendation was different, and a wish by the state board of education, at least in part, to ensure that their decisions appeared equitable” for Stowe.
Now, an enormous amount of energy will be needed to deal with merger issues, and other major issues will take a back seat, Wrend fears.
“I really wanted to continue our work on capital needs, proficiency-based learning and personalization, and of course, our commitment to equity and social responses, practices in our schools, and the extent to which we can influence it in our larger community, which are all urgent and important,” Wrend said.
A local study committee has found that Stowe Elementary School and Stowe Middle/High School both need a lot of work — at least $20 million — and plans to explain its recommendations to the school board on Monday.
Any forced merger would almost certainly affect that project, but Zimmerman said it’s too soon to know how.
“I’m disappointed,” said David Jaqua, who’s on the school building committee, but he didn’t want to comment further.
State Rep. Dave Yacovone, D-Morristown, who also represents both Elmore and Morristown, has been following the state board’s proceedings and saw no warning signs, other than a few other school boards wondering if Stowe and Elmore-Morristown were receiving special treatment.
Yacovone said the local school boards put in extensive amounts of work before concluding that a merger didn’t offer any additional value or opportunities, and he’s not sure why the state feels it necessary to step in now, especially when a merger likely won’t save any money and could add costs.
“It seems questionable,” Yacovone said. Anything the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown boards “might want to do to achieve additional savings, or better coordinate, I think they can do already. They don’t have to take that next step.”
He offered his support to both boards, “however they move forward. I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side with them and advocate on their behalf,” Yacovone said.
“It doesn’t make sense that the board is pushing so hard to force mergers where there are specific situations that might warrant either not doing it, or waiting and letting people work on it,” said Avram Patt, a former legislator from Worcester who’s trying to regain a seat in the Lamoille-Washington House district that includes Elmore and Morristown.
Nolan also fears that Elmore, the smallest of the three towns in terms of population, could lose some local control in a second merger. Right now Elmore is guaranteed two of the seven seats on the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union School Board; three of the seats are also at-large and can be filled by a member from either town, giving Elmore the potential for a strong voice on the board. Nolan thinks that voice would be much more muted on a merged board that also includes several Stowe reps.
Lisa Senecal of Stowe, who’s been heavily involved in school issues, says she’s “deeply disappointed,” but not surprised.
“It is what I feared. I hoped that the alternative structure was going to be granted, and I’d spent a lot of time at school board meetings when the plan was being put together to submit to the state and hope that it was going to be strong enough,” but Senecal knew this was a possibility.
“They seem to view this as a Stowe application and that Stowe alone was asking for something, and that it wasn’t viewed as a partnership between the (Elmore-Morristown) and Stowe school districts, who have worked very cooperatively together for a long time to come up with a plan that was going to be best for the students, best for the community, and best for taxpayers,” Senecal said.
“After more than a year of study, both Stowe and EMUU districts agreed that the alternative structure is the best way to ensure the highest quality education for all of our students in the most efficient way. Yet, the state board has forced upon us a structure that is not in either of the school district’s best interests,” said state Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe.
“I believe that it would be incredibly unwise to merge Stowe and Elmore-Morristown Unified Union school boards, especially given that Elmore-Morristown Unified Union is still dealing with their recent merger,” said Marina Meerburg, the Democrat running against Scheuermann on Nov. 6.
“It was obviously incredibly disappointing to force that in opposition to everything our towns have stood for, since before Act 46,” said Zimmerman, the Stowe School Board chair. “In this state of heightened emotion, I want to be clear that the school board is going to consider all of our options, and double down on what is best for our students and community.”
The Stowe board will hold a special meeting tonight, Thursday, Nov. 1, at 6 p.m. at the Stowe Elementary School music room. It will also meet again on Monday, Nov. 5, as previously scheduled.
“Regardless of how this unfolds, we’re going to look for the opportunity to take good care of our kids and our communities, and leverage as much positivity as we can, because that’s what our jobs are,” Wrend said.