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WESTMINSTER — Four years of acrimony, distrust and anger over Act 46 in this town ended Wednesday with a unanimous vote by the Vermont Board of Education, approving Westminster’s plan to reestablish its own school district.

During a virtual meeting, the board heard from Westminster Town Moderator David Major about the town’s plans to re-establish its school district and resume what it had for generations — a community-focused school system for grades kindergarten through eighth grade.

There was nary a mention of Act 46, the state law that generated all the anger and anxiety, in which the state Board of Education in 2018 forced Westminster into an educational marriage with the towns of Grafton and Athens, against everybody’s desires.

The no-fault school divorce granted Wednesday was largely symbolic: Westminster still has its elementary school, and Grafton-Athens also has its school and school directors from the three towns, which cooperated fully.

But efforts to find cost savings and administrative efficiencies in the past couple of years — a stated goal of Act 46 — yielded nothing, Major told the state board.

Things will return to how they were before the forced merger, Major said.

Efficiencies were already adopted at the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union before Act 46, he said, including shared food service, transportation, and special education.

Major said after the state board’s vote that it means the town will again have its strong community to help govern the school and make decisions for its future. More people will be involved, he said, and he noted there were “plenty” of people who wanted to serve on the re-established school board.

The past COVID-19 dominated year has been difficult, Major said.

“I am extremely happy for the Westminster community,” said Jack Bryar, a Grafton school director and chairman of the union elementary board that will cease to exist. Grafton and Athens have been running a combined school for more than a dozen years.

Bryar said he is disappointed that the state board didn’t take the next step and resolve the formal status of Athens and Grafton.

He said Athens and Grafton are “in limbo,” which he said “seems like an unnecessarily complicating step.”

Westminster voted overwhelmingly in January to leave the Windham Northeast Elementary Union School District, and the blessing of the towns of Grafton and Athens followed in March, when they endorsed the divorce overwhelmingly.While all three towns voted against an Act 46 merger and lobbied hard against it, the state board imposed it nonetheless. Athens, Grafton and Westminster are three of the more than 30 towns that challenged the constitutionality of Act 46 to the Vermont Supreme Court and lost last year on a split vote. {/div}

But taking advantage of a long-forgotten provision of state law governing towns leaving union school districts, Westminster followed the lead of Halifax and Readsboro in dissolving the union elementary district.

The Board of Education, satisfied with the plan outlined by Major for putting Westminster children in schools that meet state standards, approved the plan with questions focusing on the timing.

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John Carroll, chairman of the state Board of Education, said the board’s review had a very narrow focus, as outlined in state law — that the town’s children would attend schools following state educational requirements.

Earlier in the day, the state board tabled a plan by the tiny Addison County town of Ripton, which is fighting to keep its small school open after being threatened with closure due to budget constraints.

Ripton and other towns in the Addison County supervisory union approved that school divorce earlier this year. But unlike Westminster, Ripton has a more complicated educational structure, and many of its teachers are expected to leave the 30-student school since they would be losing financial benefits and seniority in a new school district.

Major said he has listened to the Ripton discussion, and he said Westminster and Ripton have very different situations.

Westminster will remain in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, and its high school students will attend Bellows Falls Union High School.

The biggest change, Major said, is the return of local, community-centered governance, rather than a separate, lightly-attended elementary school annual meeting.

Whether Westminster can elect its new school board, to shepherd the return to its own school by July 2022, at next month’s Town Meeting, is still up in the air, Major said.

Westminster pushed back its Town Meeting to May 19 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and there is an article on that meeting’s warrant that allows for the election of new school board members.

Donna Russo-Savage, an attorney with the state Agency of Education, questioned the legality of that Westminster article. Major said the town may need to get approval from the Vermont Secretary of State to elect a school board next month.

Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, was also watching the state Board of Education’s meeting. “I am glad to see the State Board of Education honor the will of all three towns,” said Bos-Lun. “The votes were strongly in favor of letting Westminster go. The residents of Westminster will be glad to return to having a local town board which will serve the educational needs of children in Westminster. We believe in local governance and are grateful to be able to return to that.”

Major thanked the towns of Grafton and Athens, as well as Superintendent Christopher Pratt and Assistant Superintendent Lynn Carey, for providing support and all the documentation the state board demanded in anticipation of Wednesday’s meeting and vote.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.

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