WESTMINSTER — Residents of Westminster will go the polls next month — or more likely January — to vote on whether to dissolve the 2019 forced school merger with the towns of Grafton and Athens.
The vote is being called to reverse a mandate imposed by the Act 46 education law that required school districts to merge into larger units in an effort to ensure efficiencies and better manage costs. A petition drive to undo the merger, spearheaded by longtime Westminster School Board Chairman David Major, was unanimously accepted by the Westminster Select Board, according to Susan Harlow, chairperson.
She said the vote to dissolve the merger would be by Australian ballot. Major said the Select Board chose Australian ballot because of the coronavirus pandemic, to avoid a large gathering. The Vermont Legislature had recently changed state law to allow for such a meeting.
Major said Tuesday that the actual wording for the Australian ballot question was still being written by the town attorney. The article must include information not just about dissolving the school union with Grafton and Athens, but what Westminster would do to re-establish its own school and school board.
The article must spell out “what happens next,” he said.
Harlow said while the petition calls for a special town meeting “on or before December 15” she said she doesn’t know if the town will be able to hit that requested date.
She said the wording of the article is being reviewed by the town attorney, Larry Slason of Bellows Falls, and she said getting an approved article from Slason’s office is being delayed because Slason went on a hunting trip.
She said the Select Board supports the move, but that the wording needs to be reviewed.
Westminster Town Manager Russell Hodgkins said Monday that the requested Dec. 15 deadline doesn’t seem to be possible, given the fact that the town hasn’t seen the wording of the Act 46 article.
“We haven’t heard ‘boo,’” he said about the wording of the article. But he said that Slason is back from his trip and he planned on discussing the issue with him on Tuesday. “We need the exact wording,” he said.
He said a townwide vote is now likely in early January. He said once he has the wording of the article from Slason, who is working with the Westminster school directors, he will start advertising a special town meeting. According to state statute, any warning has to give voters between 30 to 40 days.
“This isn’t going to happen by Dec. 15,” he said, “probably January.”
Harlow said there is a possibility that the Westminster Select Board will hold a special meeting before its next, regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 25, in order to expedite the townwide vote.
Major and others have fought long and hard against the merger. However, the state Board of Education in 2019 rejected the request of the towns’ school boards for an alternative education structure under Act 46, and forced the elementary school districts to merge.
Major said 140 people signed the Act 46 petition. He said while Westminster, Grafton and Athens “get along fine,” the lack of local control and involvement is the driving force behind the petition drive. He said the drive from the Westminster school to the Grafton-Athens School is a long one, and there aren’t any efficiencies as a result.
The only thing that decreased, he said, was “local democracy.”
“I think that the town has much more say in the school when we can talk about it during Town Meeting,” he said.
Ironically, the forced merger and the joint fight against the forced merger, has created a sense of cooperation and camaraderie among the different town boards.
Harlow said that while she is sure there are some townspeople and parents who supported the merger, most of the people she talked to were opposed to the forced merger.
She said the promised tax savings and school efficiencies did not materialize, noting that the merged school budget is up 5.5 percent.
Like others, she pointed out that Westminster, Grafton and Athens don’t even share a road, and access to the two elementary schools is time consuming.
The timing of the requested Dec. 15 deadline, she said, is likely an effort to get the matter resolved before the Vermont Legislature convenes in early January, and if there is a move to change the law to prohibit such school merger divorces.
The southern Vermont towns of Halifax and Readsboro have also voted to dissolve their merger.
Westminster School Director Cheryl Charles, who is a member of the merged elementary school board, said the school directors have made it a priority that children and parents won’t be harmed by the merger.
“It hasn’t been a problem,” she said.
But, she pointed out, there have been “no efficiencies, no financial or programmatic improvements.”
“We are so physically distant. A merger didn’t make sense,” she said.