TOWNSHEND — In a 6-4 vote Monday night, West River Education District board members set the stage for voters to decide if Windham should be made to merge.
Five communities — Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham — will vote by Australian ballot on June 11 whether Windham Elementary School District should fully join the West River district. Windham residents currently vote on the high school portion of the West River budget.
In June, voters also will consider a combined budget of $11,710,082 by adding Windham's anticipated 2019-20 expenses of $450,039. Those votes would be "commingled," or collected then tallied together.
Joe Winrich, West River Education District board chairman, said Monday's meeting was about warning a vote so that it could be certified by the state before the West River district becomes operational in July.
In its final report on Act 46 mergers, the State Board of Education requested that the vote happen before then. Superintendent Bill Anton said the West River board's authority does not match or exceed that of the state board.
But West River board member Howard Ires, who represents Windham, insisted that a vote to merge the districts could be held at any time.
"We haven't budgeted for a new school in our district, we finally finally got our budget approved on a second vote — why would we want to warn this vote?" he said. "There's no rush to do this except this bizarre request from the state that comes with this crazy deadline that nobody has planned for."
Throughout the meeting, Ires continued to question the need to vote.
"What for?" he said. "Just to overrule the voters of Windham who have already said, 'We prefer to run our own little school up there?'"
Ires anticipates "a huge campaign" of lawn signs and letters to editors opposing the merger.
"People of Windham don't want to merge," he said. "We've made this clear."
The Windham Elementary School Board submitted a letter requesting that the West River board not warn the vote.
"We ask that you respect Windham's vote taken in March of 2017 to not merge," Windham board members wrote, noting that their district's fiscal year 2020 budget has already been approved by the town's voters.
The Windham district is a plaintiff in a case challenging the constitutionality of Act 46.
"Things are moving along but it is possible, and indeed probably, that this will be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court," Windham board members wrote. "We feel that we have a strong case because the Vermont Constitution does not allow the taking of property without an affirmative vote of the people from whom the property is being taken."
In March, voters from the town authorized the Windham board to sell the elementary school and associated property in a 65-3 vote and to provide elementary education of the district's students by paying tuition. The Windham board said it will insist on fighting the merger in court.
"We are disrupting the Constitution here," said West River board member Ken McFadden, who represents Newfane. "Now you have four other towns of a combined district say, 'We have more people. We're taking you. We're absorbing you and you lose your identity. And you lose your individuality and your vote.'"
Winrich said he feels voters have the right to "speak up" on the issue until June 30. Lindsay Bertram, who represents Newfane on the West River board, said "everyone should get to have their say."
West River board member Drew Hazelton said the current makeup — where voters decide on a prek-6 budget and a 7-12 budget in separate articles since Windham only votes on the upper grades — has affected the way the West River district budgets and functions.
"We would be doing everyone a disservice not to have this vote," he said. "This is an important issue. We need to at least let the public weigh in on this discussion."
Sally Newton, a longtime teacher at Windham Elementary who lives in West Townshend, questioned how residents in another town would understand the needs of children in Windham
"To say we need you to join," she said, "does not make sense to me. There are a lot of people who may be voting who don't really know the issues."
Newton worried that some voters would want Windham to merge because their school district did. She said 17 children attend Windham Elementary and with a merger, three sixth graders would be sent to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School next school year with seven fifth graders to go the following year.
"If we are forced to join, we will lose 10 kids from our school," she said.
West River at-large board member Mike Foley, Ires and McFadden voted for the warning of the merger vote to include the word "force." They were outnumbered so the motion failed.
Crystal Corriveau of Windham said she thinks it is important to get anonymous feedback from parents.
"I know myself and two other parents, if we are allowed to, will be sending our sixth graders down here next year," she said, referring to L&G. "So it's not really fair to be like 'forced, forced, forced.' Because you have to look at the people who have kids at the school and what they want."
Tax and programmatic implications of the merger are expected to be presented at the West River board's May 20 meeting. Board member Emily Long of Newfane, who also serves as a state representative for Windham-5, called for a "thorough" review of the information.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.