As reported in the Burlington Free Press, the Chittenden East Supervisory Union includes public schools in Bolton, Huntington, Jericho, Richmond, and Underhill. Voters in those towns’ six school districts went to the polls Tuesday, and each district needed to support the plan for it to pass. Four did: Bolton, Jericho, Underhill-ID and Underhill Central. Two did not: Huntington and Richmond. The merger won support by a 17-vote majority, 1,241 to 1,224. But what mattered wasn’t the popular vote, but how people decided in each jurisdiction. The plan failed 365-85 in Huntington, in Richmond it was closer, 374-317.
This was not a plan to close schools, but to merge six school districts into one, eliminate local school boards, and have one unified school board of 15 representatives with weighted representation from towns based on population.
This was the second effort to unify school districts that has failed to win voter approval this year. Earlier, voters in Addison County overrode a plan to unify five school districts there, defeating the plan on a revote after the first vote had passed.
There can be little doubt that statewide, leaders will be looking at the two votes and the current “carrot and stick” approach to school consolidation that encourages voluntary consolidation through financial incentives instead of state-mandated consolidation. These votes could very well make the state take bolder action to force school consolidation in the name of cost savings.
As it stands now, no group of towns in Vermont has voluntarily merged complete school districts on a K-12 basis. Political leaders could point to the failed votes and decide to stop paying lip service to “local control” and force school consolidation across the state.
While unpalatable to many, the fiscal reality of ever-increasing school budgets and tax burdens for property owners could sway the argument to those who favor broad consolidation, even if the savings from such consolidation has yet to be shown.
Locally, we are not sure if there are lessons to be learned for the planned Twin Valley merger expansion. At this point, we would have to say yes and no. Certainly the vote failure points out the fly in the ointment of any voluntary consolidation vote: All it takes to scuttle a plan is voters in one town deciding they are not going along with the idea.
The difference here is that Wilmington and Whitingham already have a history of working together at the middle and high school levels. While there are legitimate concerns about expanding the Twin Valley district to include elementary schools, the working relationship is already there, the district has already survived a couple of attempts to dissolve it, and only two towns have to approve the expansion, not multiple towns.
That doesn’t mean the Twin Valley vote, scheduled for next month, will be a foregone conclusion.
If anything, the votes in Chittenden and Addison counties show how difficult any voluntary consolidation plan in Vermont truly is. Many across Vermont will be paying close attention to our local vote.