Leland & Gray

Long-term planning discussions with the West River Education District Board have touched on operating without Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School and an elementary school. 

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TOWNSHEND — Leland & Gray Union High School is safe from the chopping block.

After an exploration of structuring the West River Education District in different ways to address declining enrollment, the School Board voted unanimously on Monday to support keeping the school open.

The board also is having an attorney look into codifying the decision into the articles of agreement that bind the district together in its merger to comply with Act 46, the 2015 law encouraging consolidation to improve student equities.

“This dispels the myth that Leland & Gray will close,” Board Chairman Al Claussen said in an interview.

Modifying the articles of agreement would make it difficult for another board to reverse the decision, Claussen said.

Principal Bob Thibault told the Reformer he will now have an easier time hiring and retaining staff.

“It’s been hanging out there for too long,” Claussen said. “I feel like we’ve made some progress tonight. I’m pretty happy.”

Board members indicated they need more information to decide if one of the three elementary schools in the district should close, and they expect to discuss the idea in September. However, with the exception of one opposing member, the board voted to conduct a feasibility study on a “one-campus model.”

Last year, a committee presented an idea to host a single campus in Townshend and an immersive learning center in Jamaica. In October, the board voted 9-2 to budget for the current building configurations of three elementary schools in the district and Leland & Gray.

Long-term planning sessions continued with public input prioritized. About 20 community members volunteered to serve on task forces and surveyed residents from the district member towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham. (Windham has a separate school district for elementary education.)

The process is intended to guide the board as it budgets for the next fiscal year.

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According to survey results as of last Thursday, 55 percent of 64 respondents were in favor of keeping the high school. The rest wanted to move to a tuition model for grades 9 to 12.

Monday’s decision does not affect the public high school choice program the district participates in. Any student can apply to attend any public school in Vermont, with acceptance based on a school’s capacity and no tuition money leaving the district.

Of 45 respondents, 64 percent want two K-5 schools and 29 percent want three. About 7 percent would like two elementary schools banded together by grades K-2 and 3-5.

Of 25 respondents, 13 people want pre-k available in every town and eight would like it in every school. Four prefer one centralized location.

Superintendent Bill Anton said the cost savings to consolidate three elementary schools to two is estimated to be about $225,000, although he noted it depends on the number of employees. To have pre-k in every building would approximately cost an additional $140,000. Currently, it is available in Townshend.

A community can vote to withdraw from the district. If one votes to leave then all the other member towns in the district have to affirm the vote individually, meaning the results would not be commingled like they are for budget votes.

Sarah Shine of Newfane, who is part of a group calling for expanding school choice options for high school students, told the board it is time to start thinking about creative solutions for children whose needs cannot be met at L&G.

Terry Davidson-Berger, a parent and employee at the high school, voiced concern for families with lesser household incomes who are not attending the meetings and answering surveys but would be adversely affected if the school closed. One-on-one instruction offered in the small school offers relevance to students, she said.

“Kids want to know why they’re learning what they’re learning,” she said.

Providing tuition for choice offers opportunities to students so they can go to the best schools for them, Chrissy Haskins of Jamaica said.

Board member Lindsey Bertram said L&G can be improved, however, she’s “not wiling to leave anyone behind.”

At the meeting, Thibault acknowledged room for growth on testing scores.