State officials have given final approval to a bid to create an independent public school district in Stowe, a pivotal step in a yearslong campaign to pull the town’s schools out of the district it shares with two of its neighbors.
The Vermont Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve Stowe’s withdrawal from the Lamoille South Unified Union School District, paving the way for the town to elect a school board and draft its own budget in the coming months.
“I'm very pleased,” said state Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who has pushed for the divorce for years. “We shouldn't have been in this situation in the first place.”
For years, the resort town of Stowe, one of the wealthiest municipalities in Vermont, has been battling the state over its schools.
In 2018, state officials approved a plan to force Stowe to merge its public schools with those in the less affluent towns of Elmore and Morristown. The move was part of a statewide effort to consolidate small, neighboring school districts in the name of efficiency and equity.
Stowe’s elementary, middle and high schools were forced to join the district shared by Morrisville’s Peoples Academy, Morristown Elementary School and the Elmore School, which is Vermont’s last one-room schoolhouse.
That move enraged many Stowe residents, who argued that the decision was a violation of their local control. They vowed to fight the decision.
After legal challenges to the merger foundered in court, Stowe residents moved to simply back out of the district. Last May, Stowe residents voted to secede from Lamoille South, and in December, Elmore and Morristown residents signed off on it.
But that plan hit a new legal snag. Under the law as written, an Agency of Education lawyer said, unified union districts that were forced to merge could not simply vote to de-merge. (A Stowe attorney disagreed with that opinion.)
Over the past legislative session, Vermont lawmakers passed a law to tweak the withdrawal process, including provisions to simplify those rules — and allowing Stowe to leave the district.
On Wednesday, the Vermont Board of Education, which oversees bids for withdrawals, voted unanimously to let Stowe out of Lamoille South.
“To the members of Lamoille South and to Stowe, we wish you the best of luck going forward,” Jennifer Samuelson, the vice chair of the board, said after the unanimous votes. “And hopefully this will bring you some closure.”
The Lamoille South district will continue to exist, but without Stowe’s schools. Both that district and the newly re-created Stowe School District will fall under control of a new supervisory union, the Lamoille South Supervisory Union — the umbrella organization that existed under the same name before the merger.
“We're just going back to the governance system that was in place prior to the merger,” Lamoille South Superintendent Ryan Heraty said. "And it's not really going to impact kids. It's more just a governance change.”
Stowe voters will elect three new school board members this November, and voters in all three towns will consider the school budgets for the newly separated districts on Town Meeting Day in March 2023. The divorce is set to be completed in July 2023, when the Stowe district will become operational.
Jim Brochhausen, a former Stowe board member who was closely involved in the campaign for independence, said the de-merger will allow each of the three towns to have “nimble, efficient boards.”
“The ability for Stowe community members to be on the board and focus on Stowe, and Morristown and Elmore to do the same in their respective towns, I think is important,” he said. “Because you have to be close to the schools.”
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