School district consolidation proves divisive in Elmore
ELMORE >> This lakeside community of about 900 at the base of a mountain in northern Vermont believes that it has the last one-room schoolhouse in the state. The 1850s white building in the center of town educates just 20 first- through third-graders and is beloved by many.
But some parents fear the school could close as the district consolidates with the neighboring one of Morristown, effective July 1.
The consolidation agreement will keep the school open for four years unless a majority of the electorate votes to close it, and Superintendent Tracy Wrend said there's a tremendous community support for keeping the school running. Still, some parents worry it doesn't have long because they say the discussion has been about numbers and consolidating.
"I've always said since day one, if they do something to our school I'm not going down without a fight," said Kathy Miller, who with her husband owns the only store in town, which also serves as a post office. "I've dug my heels in, and it's been horrible. I've been boycotted, I've had people swear at me, told I'm stupid."
Residents of Elmore first rejected merging, but then on a second vote approved it, in part because of the drop in property taxes they'll see. Morristown also voted twice, approving the plan both times.
Miller, whose daughter attended the Elmore School, voted against it.
As Vermont faces declining enrollment and rising education costs, last year the Legislature passed a law encouraging school districts to consolidate by providing tax incentives to do so. Districts that have plans approved before July 1 are eligible for a tax break.
The issues in Vermont are playing out nationally with questions about best mode of governance, said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.
"The local control aspect of our public education system is cornerstone, but it doesn't mean it's easy to work with when you're faced with situations like this because with resources limited, what's the first thing that people look for? Economies of scale, and that can be really difficult in a situation like this," she said.
Places like Detroit and Flint, Michigan, are seeing the similar issues of many disparate schools and a student population that is mismatched, she said. There could be a community that has 40 students and three high schools, she said. Populations change with a recession and migration to other areas, she said.
Maine underwent school district consolidations starting in 2009 for greater administrative efficiencies, but the plans didn't always stick. About two dozen communities have since withdrawn from the regional school units and about 14 have formed withdrawal committees and are negotiating withdrawal agreements, according to the Maine Department of Education.
"It was a shotgun wedding," said Doug Smith, superintendent of schools for the Glenburn, Maine, school department, which merged with Orono and Veazie and later withdrew.
"There was more staff, more per-pupil expenditures, higher salary schedules. You had to adjust everybody to the same level, of course. It was very expensive," he said.
Neighboring New Hampshire is moving away from multi-district consolidations so that local communities have more control over their schools, according to the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.
The merger of Elmore and Morristown results in a drop in property taxes for Elmore residents.
But some parents saw doing away with school choice, in which parents could send their students to other high schools, and what they see as a reduction in local control as hard losses.
Heather and Jason Bernier and their two children moved to Vermont from the suburbs of Providence, Rhode Island, a little over a year ago and picked Elmore because it had school choice.
"We kind of went out of our range of comfort because when we looked, the Realtor said, 'You know, you have school choice' and we were like, 'What's that? Sounds awesome,"' Bernier said.
With the consolidation effective July 1, kids who are not already attending other high schools will go to People's Academy in neighboring Morrisville, the village in Morristown.
Resident Jon Gailmor voted for the consolidation due to the drop in property taxes and agreement to keep the school open for four years but said the debate had turned ugly, and he's relieved it's over.
"It's a wonderful town, a wonderful community, and I love Morristown, I love our local schools; that's why I live here," Gailmor said.
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