Education

Stowe’s bid for school independence raises questions about Act 46 and the state’s last one-room school

The one-room Elmore School. Courtesy photo

In 2018, when the Vermont Agency of Education revealed plans to force the Stowe School District to merge with two of its neighbors, it sparked immediate controversy. 

Even before it took place, Stowe tried to fend off the arranged marriage, which paired the upscale resort town with its more middle-class neighbors Elmore and Morristown.

Now, a year and a half after the merger, Stowe is making another bid for independence. 

In May, residents voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Lamoille South Unified Union. And on Dec. 7, voters in neighboring Elmore and Morristown approved Stowe’s withdrawal. 

Those votes could be the latest test of the state’s controversial 2015 merger law, Act 46. And they are putting the fate of the district — and the last one-room schoolhouse in Vermont — up in the air.

“Right now, we’re just kind of in a holding pattern, waiting to hear from the state,” Ryan Heraty, the Lamoille South school superintendent, said in an interview.  

After the passage of Act 46, the Agency of Education sketched out plans for which districts would merge and which could stand alone.

Then-interim secretary Heather Bouchey recommended leaving Stowe alone. Neighboring districts Elmore and Morristown had voluntarily merged with each other, and Bouchey reasoned that was enough. 

But that decision caused pushback from other Vermont residents, who thought Stowe was getting special treatment because of its affluence. In 2018, the State Board of Education proposed a different plan: merge Stowe and the Elmore-Morristown district into one unified body, the Lamoille South Unified Union. 

That caused immediate backlash in Stowe, where residents vowed to fight the plan. A month later, the two districts filed a lawsuit. 

That and other challenges to Act 46 foundered in court, and in mid-2019, the Lamoille South Unified Union began to operate. 

But earlier this year, Stowe residents began petitioning for another shot at leaving. 

Since the merger, Stowe’s schools have suffered, proponents of the divorce have said. Schools have fallen in national rankings and enrollment has dropped, according to Richard Bland and Jim Brochhausen, two former Stowe School Board members who pushed for the divorce.

Stowe’s schools need millions of dollars in capital improvements, and “because the students don’t go to each other’s schools, there's little incentive — understandably so — for the folks in Morristown and Elmore to pay,” Bland said. 

And last fall, Stowe High School canceled its Advanced Placement classes, sparking an outcry from the community. 

“If it was the Stowe School District, comprised of Stowe residents on a Stowe School Board, that would have never happened,” Bland said. "I can say that emphatically and unequivocally.”

Stowe’s bid for independence is far from Vermont’s first. So far, the State Board of Education has approved several de-mergers, including, earlier this year, districts that involved Ripton and Westminster.  

But in Stowe’s situation, there are key differences. While many districts, including Ripton, merged voluntarily, Stowe was forced to merge by state officials. 

And, unlike Westminster, Lamoille South is a unified union school district, not just a union school district. 

The difference? Union school districts operate only primary or secondary schools, while unified unions operate (or pay tuition for) students at all grade levels. 

Those seemingly minor details could consign Stowe to a different fate. In an April letter to the Stowe Selectboard chair, the Agency of Education’s general counsel said that, as written, the merger law would prohibit such a move.

Unless lawmakers stepped in to clarify or amend the legislation, general counsel Emily Simmons wrote, the law “would permanently prohibit a member of a State Board-created (unified union school district) from pursuing withdrawal/dissolution” because the districts involved did not vote to merge. 

An attorney for the town of Stowe, however, disagreed.

“It is our opinion that limiting the ability to withdraw by vote to only those towns which voluntarily merged (and prohibiting towns in forced mergers to remain merged) is discriminatory,” attorney Dina Atwood wrote

The Vermont Board of Education, which oversees bids for de-mergers, is expected to consider Stowe’s application at a meeting early next year, although it’s not yet clear exactly when. Oliver Olsen, the board’s chair, expects the body to take up the question in February. 

“We’re going to have legal counsel look at it and figure out what our role is, what the next steps are,” Olsen said in an interview. “It’s created this conundrum where, depending on very subtle shifts in the relevant fact patterns, the process can be different.” 

It’s unclear what a decision could mean for the districts around the state. Olsen, as well as two education law attorneys reached by VTDigger, declined to speculate about the potential impact of a board of education ruling either way, and an Agency of Education spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions. 

But it’s possible that, if Stowe is allowed to leave, that could open the door for other unified unions to dissolve. 

The law, Olsen said, “should have been but unfortunately wasn’t updated” to address that possibility. 

But whether or not Stowe leaves, some of its neighbors are already concerned. In Elmore, home to roughly 850 people, Stowe’s bid for independence has also intensified fears about the fate of their own school. 

The Elmore School, Vermont’s last one-room schoolhouse, had an enrollment of 15 as of the spring, according to state data. It serves first, second and third grade students.

But in April, a report compiled by the New England School Development Council raised the possibility of closing the school. The district-commissioned report projected a decline in enrollment of roughly 100 students over the next decade in the three-town district and made recommendations for “future grade level reconfigurations, building renovations and/or construction and alternative facility use.”

Researchers issued a series of five options for consolidating the district’s schools. Of those five options, four proposed closing the Elmore School. 

That report, along with the looming possibility of Stowe’s departure, sparked consternation in the small town, where the school is much-beloved.  

“There are consequences that are greater than just 19 kids going to school there,” Stuart Weppler, a former school board member, said in an interview. “As far as the townspeople are concerned, it’s part of our identity.”

Jon Gailmor, Elmore’s town moderator and sometimes music teacher at the school, said the Elmore School is the center of the town.

For its students, he said, “it lays incredible groundwork and lays a very fertile foundation for growth and for an appreciation for life.” 

“There’s just nothing like it,” he said. 

Along with this month’s vote on Stowe’s departure, Elmore residents considered a ballot question that would have begun the process of striking out to form a single Elmore district. But voters turned down that proposal. 

Instead, many hope that Stowe’s departure will effectively revert the districts to their pre-merger forms. In the past, Weppler said, officials in the Elmore-Morristown district agreed to keep the Elmore School open. 

But if the district is allowed to decouple, it’s unclear exactly what will take its place — and whether local officials will still commit to keeping Elmore School open. 

“If Stowe is allowed to pull out, then the question becomes, what do we revert back to?” Weppler said. “And we have no idea what the answer to that is.” 

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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