Windham, West River merger rejected

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WEST RIVER VALLEY — In a 508-166 vote, local residents rejected a merger to put Windham into the West River Modified Union Education District.

Voters in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham went to their respective polling stations Tuesday, then Australian ballots were commingled. The West River board scheduled the vote after the State Board of Education issued its Final Report of Decisions and Order on Statewide School District Merger Decision, which says the vote should happen before the West River district becomes fully operational on July 1.

School officials say a vote is scheduled for July 16 to see if Windham should be permitted to leave the Leland & Gray union. L&G hosts students from communities in the West River Valley.

Currently, Windham votes only on the West River district's grades 7-12 portion of the prek-12 budget.

In a letter, the Windham School Board had asked residents in the neighboring towns to vote against the merger.

"We ask that you respect Windham's vote to not merge taken in March of 2017, as well as subsequent strong votes that indicate Windham's desire to remain autonomous," the board wrote. "We take exception to the very language in the first article because it connotes that Windham is asking to be 'accepted' into the WRMUED. We are not. Just as we believe that forced marriages are bad practice, we believe the same is true of forced mergers."

The board noted that a lawsuit in which its district is a plaintiff is still ongoing. The suit challenges the constitutionality of forced mergers under Act 46, the law that encouraged school districts to consolidate to improve student equity and find efficiencies.

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"Things are moving along but it is possible, and indeed probable, that this will be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court," the Windham board 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 without fair compensation. The giving of Windham School District property to the WRMUED without an affirmative vote of Windham voters is, in our view, an affront to the Constitution."

On Monday, a judge rejected a motion from Windham to grant a preliminary injunction to stop the merger vote.

The board also said voters in Windham approved its fiscal year 2020 budget at Town Meeting with no dissent.

"We have signed contracts with our teachers who are relying on employment at our school next year and they have been told that if this motion passes, their contracts will be null and void," the board wrote. "They have more than 30 years of combined service to our school and such an action, in our view, is unconscionable.We are asking for another year to resolve the lawsuit, honor the contracts with our teachers, and make decisions about the future of our school."

The Windham board said the West River board "promised that there would be no major operational changes made for several years and yet within the first year they voted to move all the sixth graders from the elementary schools" to Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School.

"When petitions with 200 plus signatures were presented to the WRMUED Board asking for a reconsideration and vote, they were essentially disregarded," the board wrote. "We fear the decisions that might be made by this board regarding our small, geographically-isolated school, when we have only one member to represent our position, will have a negative impact on the education of our students."

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


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