BRATTLEBORO — As information on the potential impact of breaking up the Windham Southeast School District is coming out, so is a lot of opposition.
On March 2, voters in the WSESD will be asked if their town should withdraw from the district. They’ll also consider if their town should approve and ratify the withdrawal of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and/or Putney from the district.
If a town votes no on the first article, it will remain part of WSESD. If a town votes no on the second article, it will prohibit other towns from withdrawing.
If a town votes yes on the first article and all the other towns vote yes on the second article, it may ask to withdraw from WSESD and establish its own single-town district, which will require approval by the Vermont State Board of Education.
WSESD board member Shaun Murphy told the Reformer he couldn’t support the articles and didn’t believe it was the right time to pose them.
In January, Murphy alone had voted against having them warned on the March ballots. At the time, Board Chairman David Schoales said the idea to hold the vote came from the public, not the board, and there was concern that the Legislature might close off the current ability districts have to dissolve.
In a letter to the editor submitted Thursday representing his own views, Schoales said he would like to wait a few more years to see how the merged district works out before disrupting everything again and starting over.
“The COVID pandemic makes it hard to compare anything, and so far the current board has been open, inclusive, effective and progressive,” he wrote. “As membership changes over time, the liabilities of a large board not closely tied to the local communities might be more clearly revealed.”
Schoales said the board has “pushed equity and anti-racism to the top of the list of priorities (after the obvious imperative of keeping everyone safe), and despite the pandemic, real changes are happening.” However, he worries a larger institution is “more susceptible to falling into the administrative state with the school board becoming a rubber stamp. So I would like to see if the institutions this board created can be effective over time before we change again.”
Schoales opposed a merger between the local school districts when it first came up as part of the 2015 education law Act 46. The state eventually required it even though the four towns voted against it in 2017.
For more than five years, communities have “suffered from confusion, inaccuracy, opinion stated as fact, manipulation and lots of fearmongering around Act 46,” Schoales said at the board meeting held remotely Tuesday. “It has been painfully divisive.”
Most board members wanted to give the communities an opportunity to vote on dissolving the district and the four municipalities allowed the articles to be on their ballots, Schoales said. The board approved an informational flyer created by the district’s Communications Council, which is available at sites.google.com/wsesu.org/wsesdboard/information?authuser=0, and a more detailed document will be coming out soon.
The merger resulted in an administrative savings of about $150,000 due to reduced expenses related to auditing costs on fewer individual budgets, according to the flyer. A document from Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Business Administrator Frank Rucker outlining the hypothetical financial impact on each town of withdrawing estimates school tax rate increases of about 1.8 percent in Brattleboro, 15.6 percent in Dummerston, 3.9 percent in Guilford and 7.7 percent in Putney.
“If a town withdraws, they will be responsible for all relevant costs incurred in their redistricting process, including, but not limited to election expenses for a transitional board and new budget, administrative expenses and fees, and repayment agreed on by all communities for costs associated with debts, investments, and tuition,” the flyer states. “Any town that withdraws from the district will have an increase in spending per pupil if they continue providing the same services and programs as are currently available under WSESD. This would result in an increase to the tax rate for that town and possibly for other towns remaining in WSESD, with smaller districts feeling a greater impact and increase in tax rate.”
If Dummerston, Guilford or Putney withdraw, the withdrawing town would pay tuition for students to attend post-elementary classes at Brattleboro Area Middle School, Brattleboro Union High School or another public or approved independent school offering those grades. If Brattleboro withdraws, the flyer states, “the status of BAMS and BUHS is unclear.”
“If the WSESD is dissolved, pending financial agreement, BAMS, BUHS and Windham Regional Career Center (WRCC) would become Brattleboro schools,” the flyer states. “Outlying towns would pay tuition for their students to attend.”
If the district is totally dissolved, school districts would have the ability to again establish a union high school, according to the flyer.
A board for a withdrawing town would be elected by voters in that town with only representatives from that town. The number of board members would be determined, the flyer states.
“A local school board would focus on issues and needs of the schools and voters in that town only, with continued representation in WSESU,” the flyer states. “The withdrawing town will not have board representation or ability to vote on the budget of schools outside their local district. Schools will continue to have equal representation under the WSESU. If Brattleboro withdraws, the status of secondary schools is unclear.”
WSESU is described in the flyer as providing administrative services, including financial, curriculum and technology support; coordination of school bus contracts; food services; special education services; and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Social Justice.
In a letter to the editor, dozens of community members from all four towns encouraged others to vote against dissolving the district. They described the articles being “ill-timed, driven by an unclear sense of urgency, lacking legal clarity, and linked to concerning tax and school structure implications for all four towns.” They also raised concerns about not having enough information provided to the public before the vote.
In a separate letter, 19 teachers and staff members from Dummerston School urged against voting for dissolution. They said now, in the midst of a pandemic, is not the time to consider the matter.
“The merged district has only been in effect since July 1, 2019, and we have been in a global pandemic for 11 of the 18 months since its formation,” they wrote. “It is difficult to assess the pros and cons of the recent changes to our district, as they have been overshadowed by these highly unusual current events.”
They said they have noticed some movement toward shared resources across the district and equity for all students, additional support for technology needs and initiatives, access to capital funding for essential maintenance and upgrades, shared knowledge and expertise to address school-related issues, expansion of food services, and support for revamping and expanding outdoor spaces among other things.
Another letter signed by 25 staff members and teachers from Guilford Central School shares similar concerns and encourages voters to say no to both articles, as they would have “extensive implications and loss of equity across area schools.”
Robin Morgan of Brattleboro urged the board to include in its information sheet that the vote might not be binding because the district’s lawyer said the merger might not be able to break up since it had been forced rather than voluntary. The flyer was updated to say the district is state formed and no law applies to its withdrawal.
Other perspectives also have been shared. Board member Liz Adams, who initially opposed the merger, described being conflicted now as she’s seen a lot of support for teachers in the new district.
Jaime Contois of Putney said she worries about how things might fall through the cracks with the bigger district. She said the meetings are long and attendees don’t always get to hear from the principals.
Writing in Views of Dummerston, board member Thomas Nolan said he will be voting to dissolve the board because he feels that “local control of our school is both the most democratic and efficient way of running our school. It is also a simple way to undo the damage done by the state’s previous overreach.”