Stowe School Board meeting on merger

Nearly 200 people attended an emergency meeting of the Stowe School Board last Thursday to discuss the State Board of Education decision to force a merger of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts.

The new bleachers at Stowe Elementary School got their first full-capacity test last Thursday when nearly 200 people crammed into the gym to decry the Oct. 29 decision of the State Board of Education to force the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts to merge.

Now, school officials and hundreds of residents who tout the excellence and independence of Stowe’s public schools are scrambling to figure out how the town can keep local control over education.

In the 10 days since the state board issued its provisional dictum, there have been far more questions than answers. Variations of “what next?” peppered the Stowe board’s special meeting last Thursday, its normal meeting Monday night, and the Elmore-Morristown board meeting Tuesday night.

There’s a joint meeting tonight of the Lamoille South Supervisory Union — the umbrella organization for the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown districts — where more questions are likely.

The state board has until Nov. 30 to make its votes official, but it meets again next Thursday, and once again after that, so it could make its decisions even earlier than Nov. 30. After that, the 40-something schools that had proposed “alternative governance structures” may have to take legal action if they want to avoid a merger.

“We haven’t rolled over and died yet,” board clerk Leigh Pelletier said last Thursday.

What changes?

Even if Stowe is forced to merge with Morristown and Elmore, it’s strictly a governance change. Stowe students would still attend Stowe schools — something that board chair Cara Zimmerman wanted to make sure kids know, since they sometimes read the news, too, and are wondering what will happen to them next school year.

Said Superintendent Tracy Wrend, “I don’t want to minimize the importance of governance change. However, I want to make it clear a governance change doesn’t change day-to-day operations.”

The current Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school boards would dissolve, though, and there would be one board, made up proportionally of members from Stowe, Morristown and Elmore.

“We would be the last school board members. You will never see a Stowe School Board again,” board member Tiffany Donza said.

But much of the fear of a forced merger comes from the what-ifs. What if, in two years, Stowe and Elmore-Morristown were forced to merge their schools and curricula, instead of just its governing body? What if the newly merged board decided to redraw district lines? What if Elmore or Morristown representatives don’t like the Stowe schools’ budgets?

Some fear that Elmore and Morristown, already voting as a bloc, would have more leverage on a single board made up of representatives from all three towns.

Stowe lawyer Chandler Matson said, for example, if the new board makeup gave each town two representatives, the Elmore-Morristown bloc would be able to shoot down anything Stowe proposes.

“This bill is so awful because it pits towns against towns,” Matson said.

Size matters

One key element of Act 46 is enrollment — the state wants unmerged school districts to have at least 900 students.

If you include preschool, Elmore-Morristown is there, with Elmore’s 13 students putting the district just over the line.

Stowe is close, with 848 students, if you include preschool. Donza said that’s apparently not close enough, “if you’re a member of the State Board of Education.”

Many noted Stowe school enrollment has increased by about 100 students in the past decade, is projected to continue ticking up, and would eventually top the 900 number.

Terry Dwyer, who was on the school board from 1997 to 2009, through the implementation of Act 60 and early steps a decade ago to institute school district consolidation, said Stowe has bucked the statewide trend of dwindling enrollment.

“That’s because we have great schools, a great town and a great, great group of parents,” Dwyer said. “I’m astonished they didn’t buy our idea.”

Stowe School Board member Jim Brochhausen said schools in both districts are “packed to the gills,” and both districts have expressed needs for school improvements. Within a merged district, each town’s bonding debt becomes the others’.

Stowe’s capital committee put in hundreds of hours during the summer and early fall coming up with proposals to renovate both the elementary and the middle/high school buildings, with new additions and major and minor overhauls. The committee had hoped the school board would get the project finalized and ask voters to approve a $20 million to $25 million bond on Town Meeting Day next March.

Elmore/Morristown also has a wish list for its facilities, including a new Peoples Academy gymnasium. The current one is too small to host playoff basketball games, and extra space is needed beyond that as well.

In a merged district, any capital improvement projects requiring a bond vote would have to be approved by voters in all three towns, and board members are worried that getting Morristown and Elmore voters to sign off on improvements to Stowe’s schools, or vice versa, would be almost impossible, especially since both projects need to happen soon.

“That’s my concern,” Stephanie Craig, chair of the Elmore-Morristown district, said Tuesday night.

Elmore-Morristown board members also brought up that forcing a merger in such a short time period seems unreasonable. They do have some experience in making one work, but it took four votes and over a year of work planning and crafting governing articles of agreement to get the Elmore-Morristown merged district up and running, and there were still kinks to be worked out. Now, the state wants the two districts to do all that by next July.

“We didn’t plan for this, we didn’t see it coming, and we have very little time to react,” Elmore-Morristown board member Christy Snipp said Tuesday night.

‘Lawyer up’

Stowe School Board members made it clear this week the district intends to continue to oppose the merger, first with a supplemental letter and, if necessary, through legal action.

On Tuesday night the Elmore-Morristown board supported the idea of providing supplemental information to the state, but Craig asked the rest of the board to mull over any legal action for a few days before any decision is made.

However, with the future uncertain, school board members and some in the community brainstormed ways to wring as much independence out of the Stowe School District as possible in the short amount of time left.

The idea of going forward with the March bond vote anyway was floated — just get Stowe voters to approve it before the July 1 merger and deal with the consequences.

There was a suggestion of transferring ownership of all Stowe school property to the town government, something Wrend said would be disallowed under Act 60, because it would affect the equitability of the district.

What about changing the makeup of the school? Say, make Stowe a school choice town for kindergartners, which would knock it out of alignment with Elmore-Morristown?

The idea of dusting off an independent school study and privatizing Stowe was brought up, only to be dismissed as too late. Lisa Senecal, who was a part of the group that a couple of years ago explored privatization, said that window has likely closed.

Again, no answers, yet, to any of those hypotheticals. Wrend said it would be best to await counsel from the district’s lawyers before seriously exploring any avenues other than sending a supplementary letter to the state education agency.

Many in Stowe think the best way to buy more time is to file a lawsuit. David Jaqua, a member of the capital committee, rallied the troops last Thursday in the elementary school gym.

He said his dad once told him that, “if you’re going to try something, make sure you have an army behind you.” Jaqua then asked everyone sitting in the bleachers to stand up if they supported some sort of legal action. Almost the entire room rose to its feet.

“Thank you,” Jaqua said. “I think we have an army.”

Even legal action comes with its own questions. Should the school go it alone with its own lawsuit, or should it join a suit being brought by attorney David Kelley on behalf of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members?

Kelley was at Monday’s meeting, and he said about 20 schools are interested in being plaintiffs, along with “a hundred or so” individual plaintiffs. Matson pointed out, though, that Stowe, with its reputation of wealth and privilege, probably isn’t the poster plaintiff to try to win over a sympathetic judge.

Zimmerman, the school board chair, said the district faces the possibility of literally “lawyering up,” and in a town like Stowe, there’s no shortage of litigators — she noted that she and Pelletier are lawyers, and at least five more in the audience spoke up.

Richard Bland, a former school board member and a lawyer, noted that “if you get seven lawyers in a room, you’re going to get eight opinions.”

‘They didn’t read it’

School board members and others are convinced that the state board members didn’t even read Stowe and Elmore-Morristown’s proposal to keep the two districts separate, and instead just based their decision on the education secretary’s June 1 recommendations.

Some of this conjecture comes from watching a video of the Oct. 29 meeting, when the state board took up more than 40 alternative proposals from school districts all around the state. When it was Stowe’s turn, one of the state board members, Peter Peltz of Woodbury, can be heard asking if Stowe presented a Section 9 proposal.

This appeared to rankle some in the Stowe community.

“If they’re rejecting the proposal, they ought to at least read it,” Stowe resident Alan Ouellette said.

“I just don’t think they’ve provided any solid reasons why,” Ida Mae Anderson, an Elmore-Morristown board member, said Tuesday night at that board’s meeting. “I’m not convinced they make very sound judgments.”

Brochhausen said the state board seems to have taken a default position that mergers are best unless they can be proven not to be, and the board seized on language in the secretary’s report that said a Stowe-Elmore-Morristown merger is “possible or practicable.”

“I agree. They didn’t read it,” Brochhausen said, adding after a beat, “in my opinion.”

State review was detailed

But Krista Huling, chair of the state board — and a Cambridge resident — said that’s “not accurate.” She said Peltz’s comment was most likely a momentarily blip of forgetfulness in the third hour of a six-and-a-half-hour meeting.

Huling said the board has, since June, read all the Section 9 proposals submitted, as well as the secretary’s June 1 plan. She said every board member read, at least, every executive summary, and small subgroups of the board did “deep dives” into the proposals, including looking back at the school board meetings during which those alternative governance structures were crafted and discussed.

As for Stowe’s opinion that the state board hadn’t read its proposal, Huling said, “I think people hold on to little things. We’re a board of humans and we’re not perfect.”

Oliver Olsen, a state board member from South Londonderry, was the lone dissenting voice at the Oct. 29 meeting. He said, in an email Tuesday, that he had also read Stowe’s proposal, and is under the impression other board members had, too.

“I’m not sure how people have come to the conclusion that board members have not reviewed this (or any other) AGS proposal,” Olsen said.

State board vice-chair Bill Mathis of Brandon also said, in an email Tuesday, that he read the proposal, “and found it generally well done.” He said he did not base his decision either strictly on the secretary’s recommendations or the proposal. Mathis added he had originally, in 2014, opposed Act 46.

“I based it on law,” he said. “The law is clear in that if the plan is possible or practicable, the districts shall be merged.”

Mathis noted that “it weighed on my mind” that the Stowe-Elmore-Morristown proposal portrayed the merger of Elmore, with 19 students, “as long and exceptional work,” while supervisory unions twice the size and complexity were able to come together.

Said Mathis, “While I readily appreciate the feelings of those aggrieved, I must also note that others have commended the board and asserted inequalities that need to be rectified.”

Huling said Stowe’s and Elmore-Morristown’s Section 9 proposal “was more about what they were doing, and how they would continue that work, but not changing their governance.”

Local opinions

Huling also provided comments from a couple of local residents who approved of the state board’s decision.

Don Valentine, a Morrisville resident, applauded the board’s “integrity and courage” in voting to force the merger. Valentine said the socioeconomic reality is that many people who work in Stowe schools, municipal government or other jobs can’t afford to live there.

“At least when the three towns within the Lamoille South Supervisory Union are all united into a single district, the burden created by Stowe on some of the surrounding communities will eventually be mitigated to some degree,” Valentine wrote.

Valentine also advocated for the board “inducing” Wolcott to join the supervisory union. Stowe and Wolcott had, in the early days of Act 46, explored a merger of their school boards as a way to avoid having to merge with Elmore-Morristown.

Brandon Fowler of Stowe said he has two kids in the school system and thinks “it’s a fine idea to expand the offerings of a top-rated school.”

“My examination of the process revealed nothing compelling or even persuasive about the rationale for keeping the schools separate,” Fowler wrote in a Nov. 1 email to the education agency. “But I became aware of certain local class distinctions lurking in the background that actually did help make sense of the kabuki theater that occurred.”

— Reporter Andrew Martin contributed to this story.

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