Town Meeting Day is coming up in just over a week, and this year brings two simple-sounding but dramatic ballot articles for voters in Brattleboro, Putney, Dummerston, and Guilford: “Shall the voters of the Town of...authorize the Town to withdraw from the Windham Southeast School District?” and “Shall the voters of the Town of ... conditionally approve and ratify the withdrawal of the [the other towns in the district] from the Windham Southeast School District, subject to the certification of results from the respective Town votes to withdraw on March 2, 2021?”
For all four towns, these articles are on the town’s Australian ballot, and voters can vote either in person or absentee; while Putney has already sent Town Meeting ballots to all registered voters, to encourage them to vote absentee, voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston and Guilford need to request an absentee ballot if they want one. Whether voters choose to vote in person or by absentee ballot, just a few hundred voters in any of the four towns could make the momentous decision to withdraw that town from the school district.
The sudden appearance of these articles on the ballot took many voters by surprise – and no wonder. The decision of the board of the Windham Southeast School District to bring them to a vote took place on Jan. 5, exactly eight weeks before Town Meeting Day. At that meeting, after some discussion, the WSESD board voted overwhelmingly (with one abstention and one nay vote, from Shaun Murphy of Guilford) “to add an article to vote to dissolve the WSESD Board and to return to local board governance structure.” After a conversation about whether the article should go on the school district ballot or towns’ ballots, Liz Adams, of Putney, moved “if dissolution doesn’t fall in the board’s provenance [sic], that the Board will immediately request each town’s selectboard to include a dissolution article on their annual Town Meeting warning.” All but Murphy, who abstained, voted in favor. Apparently legal counsel advised that the article should be voted on by each town, as it is now on each town’s ballot, along with the second article (required under 16 V.S.A. § 724) authorizing each town to approve other towns’ withdrawal.
Voters are already turning in their absentee ballots, though information about the implications of towns’ withdrawing from the district has been piecemeal, slow in coming – and sometimes downright confusing. At its Feb. 2 meeting, according to the minutes of that meeting, when the Board discussed the initiative, “nearly all who spoke mentioned the lack of information about dissolution and how to assess whether it is a good idea.” The Board is preparing an informational flyer, and discussed the draft at its Feb. 16 meeting. The draft, available at the WSESD Board website, has this to say about high school students:
“If Dummerston, Guilford or Putney withdraws from WSESD, the withdrawing town would pay tuition to attend a designated school outside their town for post-elementary education (Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS), Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS), or another public or approved independent school that offers those grades). If Brattleboro withdraws, 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. Outlying towns would pay tuition for their students to attend. BAMS and BUHS.
“In the event of total dissolution of the WSESD, school districts can collaborate to establish a union high school.”
At the Jan. 5 meeting, David Schoales, the chair, told the board that the idea for the article came as “a public request – it did not come from the Board.” He also told the board that there’s “an urgency” because the state Board of Education, which must approve the dissolution of districts, currently cannot deny towns’ votes to withdraw, but that the State Board “quickly asked the Agency of Education Legislature to craft legislation to change that...There’s concern about never being able to do it [dissolving the district] again if we don’t do it now.”
It’s hard to see why there’s such a rush. A search of the Legislature’s website, using the keyword “education,” yields 48 pending bills in the House and the Senate. No bill is listed that would limit towns’ ability to withdraw from their districts – on the contrary: H. 180 is a bill “to permit the dissolution of or withdrawal from a unified union school district formed by order of the State Board of Education under Act 46.” If passed, this act will explicitly authorize towns to withdraw from their merged districts.
Voters in the four towns, as well as some teachers and school staff, are mobilizing for and against these articles. Act 46, forcing the merger of their schools into a single district, became law before most people were aware of its existence, let alone its implications. Now, voters in Dummerston, Putney, Guilford and Brattleboro – step up! We must make a decision about the future of our town’s school by March 2 — at the latest.