Letter: A palpable divide in a small community
It's no great revelation that school district mergers under Act 46 have been a contentious subject for many Vermonters across the state. As new boards developed by mergers begin their planning processes, some unfortunate consequences of Act 46 are being realized. The West River Modified Union Education District came into existence when the towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane and Townshend passed a decision to merge relatively easily by a vote of 446-146. In deciding to vote for the merger, I was initially encouraged by information put out by the local Act 46 Study Committee, which touted plans to consolidate schools based on a purely administrative basis with no structural impact to the makeup of the schools themselves. The Study Committee also emphasized a proposal to offer elementary school choice within the district, an option which appeared to be popular among voters. Shortly after the WRMUED board came into existence, I was shocked to learn that the board had an altogether separate vision that was not well publicized prior to the vote on the merger: to move the 6th grade from town elementary schools to join grades 7-12 at Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School. There was no mention of this initiative at the informational meeting I attended, and it is only listed as a hypothetical possibility in the fine print of Attachment A of the Merger Proposal to the State.
The proposal to move the 6th grade was met with significant opposition by many parents and other members of the community after it came to light. The first version of the proposal involved merging the three elementary schools (Jamaica, Newbrook and Townshend) and sending all of the sixth grade students to the middle school at Leland and Gray. A VPR piece from September 11, 2018, "It's A New School Year — But Districts Still Face Ongoing Statewide Funding Questions," notes that WRMUED Superintendent Bill Anton recognized that "parents hated the idea." The board then pressed forward with a proposal to move the 6th grade to Leland and Gray without combining the elementary schools. This idea was still unpopular with parents, many of whom voiced their concerns at board meetings and posted comments on the board's website. At a WRMUED board meeting on September 11, board member Mike Foley noted that public comments on the board's website were "10 to 1 against" the proposal. Nevertheless, the board refused to heed the urging of many in the community to exercise restraint. Several citizens noted that such an ambitious endeavor should be embarked on only with the due time needed to study, develop and implement the plan properly, rather than rush to enact it in the 2019 school year as the board proposed. A detailed vision for the transition was not even made available for public consideration until the September 11 meeting, during which the board ultimately voted in favor of the proposal anyway.
The decision of the WRMUED board to press forward in the face of significant community opposition led many parents and other citizens to question the motivation for the drastic change: Was the proposal geared towards bringing about cost savings to the taxpayers in the towns involved? Does moving the 6th grade to Leland and Gray help to postpone or prevent a closing of the school due to stagnant enrollment numbers? Board members have consistently denied either of these claims, stating that the move was in the best academic interests of the students. Research, however, does not conclusively support grouping 6th grade students with older students. In fact, several studies show that making this transition earlier rather than later can have detrimental effects. Parents have continued to voice a myriad of concerns to the board, which are well documented in the October 9, 2018 front page article of the Brattleboro Reformer, "Parents call for Reversal." As the article mentions, a petition to reverse the decision garnered 226 signatures (more than half of the number of voters who initially voted for the merger) and was presented to the WRMUED board on October 2, 2018, but the board dismissed the petition and continues to push on with the plan.
The issue of moving the 6th grade has created a palpable divide in this small community. The board's rushed process has pitted many in the community against each other by fighting to simply have their voices heard. My family moved here from out of state partially because we were attracted to the small class sizes and many benefits that the elementary school offered. We were fortunate to be able to settle and make a living in an area of the state in which many families have had to leave to pursue opportunity elsewhere. I understand that the harsh reality of declining school enrollment was behind Act 46 in the first place. I could also understand if the decision to move the 6th grade to Leland and Gray is a necessary hardship to support fiscal sustainability. However, WRMUED board members emphatically deny that the motivation for the move is based on economic factors, citing instead the proposed benefits to the children. This assertion is inexplicable when considering the questionable empirical support and the shaky community buy-in for the proposal. A new petition is now in circulation proposing a special meeting in which citizens of the district would be able to make the decision regarding whether to move the 6th grade to Leland and Gray by casting their vote. Perhaps it would only serve to confirm a widespread, latent body of support for the proposal in the community, thereby putting the issue to rest. No matter the outcome of a vote, allowing citizens to have a voice on the matter through the ballot box would hopefully begin the process of mending the divide in the community.
Newfane, Oct. 31
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