School district merger on the ballot in Addison County

Residents in two Vermont school districts are voting on whether to merge together into one school district.
Published: Nov. 1, 2022 at 8:15 AM EDT
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BRISTOL, Vt. (WCAX) - Residents in two Vermont school districts -- The Mount Abraham Unified School District and Addison Northwest School District -- will be voting to merge next week and create the Addison North School District.

The Mount Abraham Unified School District is made up of Bristol, Monkton, New Haven, and Starksboro. And The Addison Northwest School District is comprised of Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes, and Waltham. Both districts have had enrollment declines for years and a Merger Study Committee comprised of members from both districts said they’d be better together.

“We really think that we can get out in front of some of these declining enrollment problems and offer some more long-term stability for our students and for our schools and for our communities,” said Merger Study Committee member Keith Morrill.

On Election Day, residents will vote on whether they want only one board and one central office in charge of all the schools in both districts. School leaders say merging could slow the tax rate growth and save nearly $1.5 million. Otherwise, they say cuts are on the table.

The committee has considered combining the middle and high schools, but they say that would be up to future board members. “Even if we didn’t merge the high school and middle school together, we still have the collection of our faculty and staff that we can work with as a whole. And the hope is that you’re then not --when these cuts are being made -- that the cuts aren’t affecting the kids, which is unfortunately what’s probably going to happen if we don’t start to solve the problem,” said Sarah LaPerle, a MAUSD representative of the Merger Study Committee.

Under the newly merged district, an elementary school could be closed within the first four years. After four years, it’s out of a specific town’s hands. An elementary school could be closed with a board and then a district-wide vote.

“Towns eventually would not have a right to vote on whether their school was going to close. So that’s a big deal,” said Herb Olsen from Starksboro, a member of the group Stop the Merger. The idea that schools could combine in the future or a school could get closed is concerning to Olsen. “You’re gonna have fewer community voices, because it’s going to be one board and it’s really going to reduce the level I think, of trust and responsiveness.”

Some voters have concerns about what the merging of a central office would look like in the long run. “If Vergennes becomes a high school -- as opposed to Mount Abe -- then that would mean our kids who live in Bristol getting carted over to Vergennes and vice versa -- Vergennes students coming to Mount Abe,” said Rick Whitney of Bristol.

“I don’t think they’re going to change much in the beginning but bussing of students and how long they’re going to be on the busses,” said Patricia King of Bristol.

Other voters say they think joining forces could be beneficial, noting that districts with large numbers, like the Champlain Valley School District, have a good system. “With the idea that they can do it and kids from Shelburne and kids from Charlotte can go to Hinesburg. That might be a model for our district,” said Howard Hall of Panton.

The vote will be decided by a supermajority of each district. Voters have to go to their town clerk’s office to get the ballot or they have to vote in person on Election Day. There will be informational public meetings Tuesday night at Holley Hall in Bristol and Vergennes Union High School. Both start at 6 p.m.