Windham to stay in Leland & Gray union

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This story was updated with reaction from Windham School Board Chairwoman and state representative Carolyn Partridge on Thursday.

WEST RIVER VALLEY — Two communities rejected Windham's exit from the Leland & Gray union, keeping the town in an agreement that limits its school choice options.

On Tuesday, Jamaica voted against the withdrawal in a 53-21 vote. Townshend did likewise in a 44-33 vote.

Brookline voted 28-14 in favor. Newfane voted 49-33 in favor.

At Annual Town Meeting in March, Windham residents voted 65-2 to leave the L&G union. That triggered a vote in the other four communities, which are part of the West River Education District and have been in the union.

Only one town needed to reject Windham's withdrawal in order for it not to move forward.

"Windham is still a part of the West River district for grades 7 to 12," said Joe Winrich, West River board chairman.

Students throughout the state can go to other high schools out of district. Districts can set limits on the number of students they let attend other schools and let into their schools.

"That's Vermont statute," Winrich said. "That same statute does not apply to middle school students, which is one of the frustrations Windham voiced in this whole thing. There are kids who live a lot closer to Chester so would prefer to go to Green Mountain [Union High School]."

Act 129 allows schools "to limit the number of students who may transfer from a school, with a cap of 10 percent of resident students or 40, whichever is smaller; schools might set higher limits," according to the state Agency of Education website.

Superintendent Bill Anton said West River currently allows 17 resident students, or 10 percent, to attend a high school out of district.

If Windham had left the union, students from the town would have school choice like those from Dover and Wardsboro. Those towns set tuition rates, then families can decide where students should go for middle school and high school.

In June, a merger of the Windham Elementary School District with the West River district was rejected by the five communities in a 508-166 vote. But administrators said Windham's leaving the L&G union would cause tax rates to go up even if all of the students from the town attend L&G since they would no longer be counted in a tax rate-tied calculation by the state for the West River district. And West River board members raised concerns that programming might suffer as a result.

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"Declining enrollment either raises taxes or cuts programs," Winrich said. "This would be a sudden and permanent decline so it has the potential to hurt the greater district. It certainly makes us look at, Well, what do do we do because now there's a shortfall in the budget?"

If the communities approved the withdrawal, Windham would have left the union July 1, 2020. So "it wouldn't be like crisis mode," said Winrich.

"There was concern for long-term sustainability of programming because that's a big hit," he said. "Declining enrollment makes it harder and harder to provide a lot of opportunities because all of those opportunities cost money and the funding is based on how many kids you have in your district. So loss of kids out of the district does affect that."

By withdrawing from the union, West River expected to lose seven students or about 8.83 "equalized pupils," a term used to refer to way the state gives different weight to students depending on factors such as age and ability to speak the English language. That translated to a loss of about $182,625 in revenue or an approximately 33-cent increase in the district's tax rate if none of Windham's students decided to attend L&G, and a reduction of about $61,025 in revenue or approximately 27-cent increase in the tax rate if all seven seventh graders came to L&G and paid tuition.

Windham School Board Chairwoman Carolyn Partridge, who also serves as state representative for the Windham-3 district, urged voters to support withdrawal. In a letter to the editor of the Reformer last week, she said she believed Windham voters supported withdrawal because middle schoolers would be required to go to L&G even if they chose to attend another high school.

"This just doesn't make any sense academically or socially," she wrote. "And while the discussion about money is important, I don't believe it is the primary motivator for Windham voters."

On Thursday, Partridge said she was disappointed by the vote. 

"We thank the voters in Brookline and Newfane for their support," she wrote in an email. "At Town Meeting 2019, the voters in Windham spoke very clearly, 65-2, that they wanted to leave the district. They felt strongly that our students who choose Green Mountain High School should be able to go there for 7th and 8th grades rather than two years at Leland and Gray and then to Green Mountain."

Partridge said the original union agreement from 1969 "specifies this opportunity and the fact that we are part of the district for 7 through 12 grades."

"Leland & Gray is now 6-12, so it seems to me that the original agreement has been violated," she wrote, referring to a decision by the West River board to send sixth graders to L&G next year.  

Partridge said she did not anticipate there would be an effort to have the matter come up for a re-vote "but don’t rule it out in the future."

"It is pretty clear, having gone to the information meetings that this vote was not about educational quality or opportunity for our students but all about money and who can claim them towards their average daily membership," she added.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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