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Forced school district mergers in Vermont spark backlash

December 4, 2018
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Members of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school boards discuss the state's decision to force the two districts to merge on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in Morrisville, Vt. The communities are among at least 20 who are planning to seek legal action against the state. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

STOWE, Vt. (AP) — Audra Hughes and her husband moved to Stowe, a ski resort town in Vermont, five years ago in part because of the schools.

Now the school district is being forced to merge its budget and school board with the neighboring district of Elmore-Morristown. It’s part of a 2015 law to create larger, more efficient districts in the rural state dotted by small towns to give students more equal educations and improve results.

But the merger doesn’t sit well with Hughes and many residents in the three communities.

“I think that both of our school boards demonstrated the success of how we all currently operate on behalf of our students and I think that anything that takes away from our students is something I’m not comfortable with,” she said.

The communities are among at least 20 planning to take legal action against the state over the forced mergers. The state Board of Education released its final plan Friday to merge 45 districts in 39 towns to form 11 new union school districts.

“If we are forced to merge this year, Elmore and Morristown residents will see their taxes rise,” the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown schools boards wrote Friday in an open letter to their communities. “Both districts have pressing capital projects that could be compromised by a forced merger.”

Jamie Kollar of Elmore fears that pressure will rise to close her town’s one-room elementary school when three towns vote on one budget. She and her husband moved to the small rural community (population 860) where she was raised because it had offered school choice in which parents could send their students to other high schools. But six months after they arrived, that option was eliminated when the district consolidated with Morristown in 2016.

“We just gave away so much initially in that merger and we’re just giving up more now in this forced merger with Stowe,” she said. Not only are they losing control of their school budget but they will be paying taxes to a school system in Stowe that their kids can’t attend, she said.

The Vermont Education secretary had recommended that the two districts not merge and the state Board of Education, which has the final say, rejected her recommendation. Later the board voted 4-4 to reconsider and the chairwoman broke the tie voting against the reconsideration.

“The final decision by the remaining members of the SBE to forcibly merge EMUU and Stowe — two very high-functioning school districts that both already separately meet, and even exceed, the goals of Act 46 in a cost-effective way, is as disappointing as it is wrong,” wrote Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, of Stowe, in the local newspaper. She vowed to do everything she could legislatively “to retain local control of our schools.”

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