On July 1, state-imposed mergers of dozens of school districts across Vermont became official.
Despite fights waged in the Legislature and the courts, the Vermont Board of Education’s much-criticized plan to implement Act 46 went into effect, forcing districts all over the state to merge with their neighbors.
One of the few districts still left standing, unmerged, was Cambridge.
Lamoille County’s third-largest town is one of just a handful remaining in Vermont that operates its own school district, governed by its own school board, even though the state board ordered it to merge with the rest of the Lamoille North school district.
So, why wasn’t Cambridge forced to merge, when so many other districts were?
Three ‘no’ votes
Elsewhere in Lamoille County, the state board forced the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown districts to merge, but the Wolcott district, which is part of the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, was left as-is, for now.
Five of the other six towns in the Lamoille North Supervisory Union — Belvidere, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville — had voluntarily merged several years ago in the early stages of Act 46, the 2015 legislation that first encouraged and later forced districts to merge into larger entities to allow for more efficiencies and opportunities for students.
Cambridge twice voted down the chance to merge, once in April 2016 when the rest of Lamoille North voted on the issue, and again in March 2017 in a separate vote.
Last last year, the state board ordered Cambridge to merge with Lamoille North, but in February, voters in all six Lamoille North towns said no.
And, through a quirk of fate, the state is powerless to force a merger after that third ‘no’ vote.
Loophole in the law
Cambridge is still part of the Lamoille North merged district for middle and high school; Cambridge kids go to Lamoille Union, and the town is represented as a partial member of the merged school board.
However, it continues to operate and oversee Cambridge Elementary School independently.
It’s the only Lamoille North town in that position.
Cambridge was able to dodge the state-mandated merger because of a loophole in Act 46, and the authority it granted to the Board of Education.
The News & Citizen made repeated attempts to reach out to Krista Huling, the chair of the Vermont Board of Education and a Cambridge resident, for comments regarding the state board’s authority, or lack thereof, as it applied to Cambridge and Act 46. She did not reply to those requests.
“It’s a function of how the law was structured,” explained Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. Since the majority of Lamoille North towns voted early in the process to merge districts, when Cambridge said no, the result was what’s called a modified unified union school district.
That should have all changed when the Board of Education ordered Cambridge to merge its elementary school district with the rest of Lamoille North, but a clause in Act 46 states that if communities participated in a voluntary merger that met the goals and requirements of the law, then the state could not force them to merge a second time.
Based on that, the five towns that have merged voluntarily into Lamoille North — Belvidere, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville — could not be forced into yet another merger.
“The way the law was written, if you voluntarily merge, the state can’t force you to merge again,” Mace said.
So, for Cambridge to follow the state directive to merge with the rest of Lamoille North, the larger district had to accept that.
The state board can order Cambridge to merge, but “only if the merged district wants to take you,” Mace explained.
And in the February vote, the merged district said no.
The vote was 350-191 against accepting Cambridge as a full member of Lamoille North.
That decisive margin likely resulted from the fact that Cambridge, as a partial member of the Lamoille North district at the middle and high school level, was actually still voting on its own merger.
“They got to vote on whether or not to accept” themselves, Mace said.
Turnout was high in Cambridge, and the result echoed the decision Cambridge voters emphatically made in both earlier merger rejections. With that local decision made, the state was powerless to press the issue.
The final four
Similar turns of events have left school districts in Huntington, Barnard and Windham in much the same situation as Cambridge. On a map laying out the new, merged districts across the Green Mountain State, those four towns, and only those four, are listed as districts ordered to merge by the state board that are awaiting acceptance by the voters in the already-merged district they would join.
In some of those other cases, Mace said, the governing school board of the merged district decided not to even hold an election, instead deciding not to force anyone to join their new district against their will.
The only way Mace sees Cambridge and the other three districts being forced to merge is if the Legislature requires it.
“The state, as the law is written right now, has no option to force it to happen,” she reiterated. “For now, the state’s role is complete, the implementation” of Act 46 is complete.
“In the end, Cambridge followed all the required steps in the Act 46 process, and it appears that the roadmap simply ran out,” said Mark Stebbins, chair of the Cambridge School Board.
Mace doesn’t believe Lamoille North is legally obligated to hold another acceptance vote, but if it did, Cambridge would be in a strong position. Across Lamoille North, Cambridge voters are the ones most interested in the merger question, and they’re also the most numerous.
As of Aug. 5, Cambridge had 3,288 registered voters, far more than any other Lamoille North community. There are 2,228 voters in Hyde Park, 2,200 in Johnson, 866 in Eden, 589 in Waterville and 239 in Belvidere – a total of 6,122.
That’s enough to outnumber Cambridge voters — provided the voters go to the polls.
That wasn’t the case in February, when 319 Cambridge voters turned out, and the other five towns combined for only 223.
“The low voter turnout indicates an exhaustion in our communities around repeatedly voting on Act 46 issues,” state Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, said back in February; her House district also includes Cambridge.
But Stebbins thinks that, “with the focus on mitigating the cost of education across the state, school governance will likely remain an issue.”
Cat Gallagher, Lamoille North school superintendent, thinks a new vote could take place on Town Meeting Day in 2020. It’s a high-turnout day, and David Whitcomb, chair of the Lamoille North board, expects a vote then too. But, he doesn’t see any reason to stir the pot, either.
“It’s gone smoothly as far as I can see,” Whitcomb said. “They’re doing their own thing; they have their own elementary school” with its own school board. When elementary business comes up at Lamoille North board meeting, Cambridge reps simply don’t vote on it.
“They can’t vote on elementary stuff for our schools, and vice versa,” Whitcomb said.
He expects the state-forced mergers of Act 46 will end up in the Vermont Supreme Court anyway, and he didn’t rule out that ultimately, if some other resolution isn’t found, Cambridge could merge with a neighboring district other than Lamoille North.
Richard Westman, a Cambridge resident and Lamoille County’s sole state senator, still thinks that, “at some point, there will be a merger, but for right now they’re in no-man’s land.”
Westman thinks the decision by the Cambridge board to sit tight for now and see what happens “is the best they can do.”