Readsboro supports Halifax's withdrawal

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READSBORO — Residents voted 140-51 on Tuesday to allow Halifax to withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District.

School Board Chairman Homer "Chum" Sumner is still waiting on guidance on how to proceed.

"This is a whole new thing in the state of Vermont," he said. "They don't have any protocol that can be followed from before. I guess we're the pioneers."

Sumner said he thinks the board will need to make a presentation to the Vermont Agency of Education about how the breakup will benefit students and budgets. An agency spokesperson did not respond immediately to an email from the Reformer.

Southern Valley could be the first merged district to break up since the 2015 Vermont law Act 46 was enacted. The law encouraged consolidation to improve student equity and find efficiencies in the face of declining enrollment.

The Readsboro vote by Australian ballot had been postponed from March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Petitions in both communities prompted separate special town meetings within the towns to vote to leave the merged district. In December 2019, Halifax voted 48-0 to withdraw. Readsboro voted 47-13 to withdraw the following month but since Halifax already voted to withdraw, state law requires the other towns in a district to then vote on whether to allow the one to withdraw.

Halifax residents didn't like the idea of funding renovations at Readsboro Central School, a group of Readsboro parents opposed a classroom merger that temporarily sent middle school students to Halifax Elementary School, and board members questioned whether the merger brought about any benefits.

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Because of the pandemic and the wait for Readsboro to vote, Sumner said the board hasn't talked much about the effect of a breakup.

"No sense in drawing the bathwater if you don't have a baby to put in it," he said.

He anticipates school board members, principals, the superintendent and others will discuss next steps.

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"Not everything is good or bad, one way or the other, but I think more good will come out of dissolving it than staying together," he said.

Transportation had been a challenge when classes temporarily merged. Sumner said parents who live in Readsboro typically work in the North Adams, Mass., area while those in Halifax commute to the Brattleboro or Greenfield, Mass., area.

"And it's expensive as a son of a gun if you have to hire a bus," he said, describing a slow, 11-mile route between the two communities.

Sumner said the districts were forced into the union by the state — they were told they would lose their small school grants or be merged with districts without any say.

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"Both of those things turned out to be not quite accurate," he said. "They're not forcing anyone from southeastern Vermont to merge with anyone in the Northeast Kingdom."

If Halifax and Readsboro split up, he expects each school will have to apply for the grant and prove they have a high-quality educational system.

Sumner said he knows Southern Valley isn't the only school district looking to dissolve, having received a call from another school board member interested in how to get the process going. He acknowledged that there could be some hesitancy to allow the withdrawal given that more might follow.

"But if the state makes a law, as in 46, and it doesn't work in a lot of towns," he said, "then maybe the state has to look and say, 'Maybe this isn't the best thing we did at that point.'"

Sumner said he wouldn't rule out a legal fight but the board would need do some "soul searching" on benefits versus cost and effort.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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