Bill could make it harder for Vermont towns to leave union school districts

Published: Apr. 6, 2022 at 6:19 PM EDT
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STARKSBORO, Vt. (WCAX) - A bill in the Vermont Legislature could make it harder for towns to pull out of union school districts.

It’s about preserving the goals of the 2015 school district consolidation law known as Act 46.

The goal of the law was to create larger districts in order to save money and offer better educational opportunities. But when that translates into closing schools, it can lead to towns leaving the district. That’s a scenario playing out right now in the town of Starksboro.

In the center of Starksboro lies Robinson Elementary School, a place many in town have called home for generations. Today, 116 students are enrolled.

“I know ‘em all, so it kind of brings back memories when I was a kid, knowing they’re in a place that I was at and they can have that,” said Rebecca Martell, a Robinson Elementary parent.

Starksboro’s school district-- Mount Abraham Unified School District-- is exploring a merger with the Addison Northwest Supervisory District.

Some Starksboro community members fear a merger could lead to school consolidation and Robinson will get shut down. So, a local committee called Starksboro Save Our Schools collected enough votes on a petition to call a special election in May to withdraw from the Mount Abe district.

“Right now we live five minutes down the street. So, if that turns into a 20-minute, half-an-hour commute or whatever and longer time on the bus, that all factors into it,” said Jenna Voci, a Robinson Elementary parent.

But pending legislation could alter the school district withdrawal process. The bill adds language where a town looking to withdraw would need to go through a public process with input from the State Board of Education before holding a vote.

“They’re sort of representing the interests of the state. You know, because if everybody sort of does their own thing without a certain bit of oversight, what it costs the state to educate our students or the quality of the education that the students get could change and potentially for the negative,” said Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Addison.

But back in Starksboro, Herb Olson, a member of Starksboro Save our School, feels the bill creates too many barriers.

“Why would you want to sort of dilute that by setting time limits, hurdles, supermajority votes, all sorts of stuff, to make it difficult, if not impossible to withdraw?” said Olson.

I asked Mount Abraham Superintendent Patrick Reen for his views on the Starksboro withdrawal effort. In a statement, Reen said he respects the town of Starksboro for doing what it feels it needs to do. But he also said the district is trying to figure out how to respond to declining enrollment and increasing costs, and for that, Reen said from his perspective they’d be in a better position to achieve that mission if they stuck together.

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