Act 46 ‘divorces’ on the ballot in several communities

Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 6:44 PM EST
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RIPTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Act 46 “divorces” are on the Town Meeting Day ballot in several Vermont communities. The 2015 law required school districts to merge in an attempt to save money and improve offerings at smaller schools, but it’s not working for everyone.

Voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney are voting whether to disband the Windham Southeast School District. In central Vermont, Moretown voters are considering leaving the Harwood Unified Union School District. And in Addison County, Ripton wants out of the Addison Central School District.

Ripton residents voted last month to leave the Addison Central School District after learning their tiny 48-student elementary school will most likely close its doors. Now, Ripton must get approval from the seven other communities in the district to leave.

The Ripton divorce has pitted local parents against the principal of the small school, who wants to stay in the new district. “We’re just fighting for our kids and that’s sometimes a very touchy subject,” said Erin Robinson, whose seven and five-year-old kids attend the Ripton Elementary School. She is also a full-time sub at the school and loves the family atmosphere of the small school. “They’re more apt to want to learn and try new things because they are comfortable here. They are home, in a way.”

Robinson understands that some believe bigger is better, but she says that’s not always the case. “We’re not considering what is best for our kids. We’re really focused on the potential cost savings that merging could provide,” she said.

Ripton Principal Tracey Harrington has worked at the school since 2011 and says there are many benefits to the unification. “We’ve been able to coordinate our services and coordinate our programming and our staffing in a way that has worked really well,” Harrington said.

The other seven towns aren’t necessarily opposed to Ripton leaving. One of the towns in the district is Middlebury, where you’ll actually find a lot of the “Let Ripton Go” signs.

“I’m not sure everyone in the other towns knows where they stand, other than ‘This is more of a Ripton issue than it is an issue that I’m concerned with, so let’s just let Ripton decide,’” Harrington said. She says if Ripton separates, she’s not sure how long it can financially stand on its own. “Going alone is going to increase our costs to the extent where it’s not clear how much the citizens, the residents are going to be willing to pay.”

Robinson agrees there are financial issues, but remains optimistic they can stay open. “We have a very strong community,” she said.

If Ripton stays in Addison Central, it could close anyway, sending those students down the hill to other schools. Robinson says that would increase her commute from five minutes to about 25, on occasionally slippery, snow-covered roads. “It makes me very nervous. It’s switchbacks at the end,” she said.

Harrington says she doesn’t want the school to close either and is inspired by how deeply the community cares to fight this hard to keep it open.

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