By Krystle S. Morey
After rejecting by just one vote a proposal to establish a new school district by merging with Middletown Springs, Wells school district voters will have a do-over.
Citing low turnout and misinformation in the initial vote last month, residents petitioned for and got the OK to vote again, this time on April 13 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Wells Town Office.
The vote last month was 147 to 146 against the merger.
If the outcome changes, Wells and Middletown Springs school districts would merge to form the Wells Springs Unified Union School District, sharing one board and one budget.
If Wells, or any other Vermont school district, doesn’t find a merger partner by the state’s July 1 deadline, the Vermont Secretary of Education and Vermont State Board of Education will choose a merger partner. This could be nearby Pawlet and Rupert or another district that’s more than 45 miles away, for example.
Many Wells residents now choose to send their children to high school in Granville, because they do not have a secondary school of their own, although they retain the choice to attend grades 7-12 schools in Poultney High School and private institutions such as Long Trail and Burr & Burton Academy.
“This is our last chance. We vote ‘No,’ the state takes over … we are done,” said Sue Burke, chairwoman of the Wells Act 46 Study Committee.
Burke, other committee officials and Wells residents discussed the merger at a community forum last Wednesday, March 29. Voters who attended the forum were still split on which vote is the best option for taxpayers, the school and its students.
The proposal is part of Vermont’s Act 46, which aims to realign and restructure its education system to increase fiscal efficiency and student opportunity. Declining enrollment and more than a dozen school governance structures are leading the Green Mountain State’s charge.
If Wells doesn’t approve its own merger, the state could choose a partner that is either a designation or choice district.
“We don’t know what the state would decide to do with us,” said Courtney Bishop, a member of the Wells school board member and the local Act 46 Merger Committee.
“It’s unwritten territory,” said Joan Paustian, Rutland Southwest Supervisory Union superintendent, who addressed the community forum.
Burke added: “We don’t know what would happen. The state could close us down. They can do what they want. We just don’t know.”
“If the state chooses a merger for us, could Granville be taken off the docket?” one community member asked.
“Yes, because the state has the right to shut the border down,” Burke said. “I don’t think they’ll do it, but they still have that right. And if the state wants to do something and they don’t want to send their tax dollars outside, they can do that.”
Burke clearly identified herself as “pro-Granville” advocate at the community forum.
“I am an avid Granville person and I will never give that up because Wells has always had the majority of students going to Granville and we need to keep Granville as an option,” she said.
One community member added: “Half of our students go to Granville currently … anything that would prevent that would happening would prevent half of the town from doing what they currently do. That just doesn’t make sense. That’s why it’s a good idea to vote yes, in my opinion.”
Vermont’s kindergarten through grade 12 student population declined from 103,000 in 1997 to 78,300 in 2015, Act 46 reported. Lawmakers claim the 13 different types of school districts statewide are not well-suited to achieve economies of scale and lack the flexibility to manage, share and transfer resources.
“There is no un-merged,” Burke said. “That is not an option.”
A large part of Act 46 consolidation looks at choosing between designating high schools or opting for school choice.
Several community members brought up concerns including what would happen to the Wells school building, how much would taxes rise and how a merger would affect tuition for children to attend 7-12 schools.
For example, some were concerned that the Wells school would be shut down. The Articles of Agreement for the Wells-Middletown Springs Merger require a unanimous “Yes” vote of the seven-member board and a “Yes” majority vote from Wells taxpayers to close the Wells school.
Another issue looked at the debt Middletown Springs brings with it into the merger – $12,000, which is associated with its water system.
“This will become shared debt unless Middletown decides to pay it off before the merger,” Burke said. “They said they would address it and they would pay it off.”
Middletown is also expected to end the school year with a large surplus, about $192,000, which would become the property of the joined district in fiscal year 2019.
Currently, Wells has no debt and is anticipated to have no surplus at the end of this year, she added.
The Wells Act 46 Merger Committee surveyed taxpayers in February about their priorities when studying a merger. The outcome, Burke said, produced a few key values: keep the Wells school open, retain access to Granville, minimize tax increases, and enable Wells to retain its voice and voting power.
“This is what you said you wanted,” Burke said to the forum attendees.
Several community members who attended the forum were opposed to the re-vote completely.
“…so, it is essentially unknown? We are being asked to vote on something we’re going to get stuck in or something where anything could happen,” one community member said.
Another agreed: “We are voting either on the unknown or on a very bad proposal – and one we can’t get out of. The exit strategy is a big one. And, with this, there is none.”
“Why are we having a re-vote?” asked a taxpayer in the back row.
Burke said: “We are having a re-vote because we had a small turnout and we feel that we can change the vote as far as being a positive to help this community out in the long run. It was a petition that was legally done to have this re-vote.”
Bishop added: “There were a lot of misunderstandings out there too that we were hearing. It concerned us that people were making their decisions on false things.”
“They should have accepted the will of the people,” said another community member. “I doubt very much that you would be supporting the re-vote if it had gone one vote the other way.”
“The electorate has the legal right to reconsider the vote,” Paustian said. “It could have been the same way had it been a no vote. There’s a 30-day window that that vote could be reconsidered.”
A simple “Yes” majority vote will not suffice, however.
For the re-vote on the Wells-Middletown Springs Merger to count, it must receive at least two thirds of the number of votes in-favor it received the first time around – 98 people.
“The law requires that this cannot be a low-turnout vote,” Paustian said. “If only 50 people turn out to vote, it doesn’t count.”
The local committee will host another public information hearing at the Wells Village School at 6:30 p.m. on April 12, the night before the vote.
WHAT THE VOTE MEANS
If the merger is again voted down:
– Act 46 allows a school district to designate up to three receiving school districts, but only in Vermont. Whether Wells students will be able to attend Granville High School will depend on what school district partner the Secretary of Education, supported by the Vermont Education Department, selects for Wells. Wells may be paired with Vermont districts and thus not allowed to send their students to New York.
– Wells loses all the Articles of Agreement – what Burke calls a “safeguard” – it has established with Middletown Springs.
If Wells votes yes:
– It will merge with Middletown Springs, establishing a single district, the Wells Springs Unified Union School District. That district, which would begin operation on July 1, 2018, would have one school budget, one board and a student population of about 300. The school board would be made up of three representatives from each community and a seventh “at large” board member from either town. All seats are voted on by taxpayers.
– Students will retain Granville High School as a secondary school choice.