BRATTLEBORO – Voters on Tuesday resoundingly rejected Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s four-town Act 46 merger plan, sending residents and school officials back to the drawing board.
After a messy, contentious merger process, the results were clear and convincing: In Dummerston, there were 473 votes against the merger compared with just 91 in favor, a margin of more than 5 to 1.
The plan failed by a 199-vote margin in Putney; by 101 votes in Guilford; and by 475 votes in Brattleboro.
Act 46 Study Committee Chairwoman Alice Laughlin said she was not surprised by the outcome.
“Change is hard,” Laughlin said. “This has been a very long process and the voters have now been through two tough votes. The benefits of the merger are hard to understand for a plethora of reasons.”
A group of Windham Southeast residents has been working behind the scenes to formulate an alternative school governance plan, but they don’t have much time: A preliminary proposal must be sent to the state by Dec. 26.
Dummerston School Board Chairwoman Kristina Naylor said she’s confident that can happen because talks already are well under way.
“There’s a lot to be done, but it’s not like we’re starting from square one,” Naylor said.
Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of an arduous and often-acrimonious merger deliberation that stretched over two years.
Act 46, approved by the Legislature in 2015, pushes for formation of larger, consolidated school districts statewide in an effort to save money and equalize educational opportunities.
But merger talks in Windham Southeast faced consistent opposition from those who feared a loss of local control and don’t believe that merged districts will be able to deliver on the goals of Act 46.
There also were obstacles presented by Vernon School District, which has a school-choice setup that’s unique among Windham Southeast schools. In an effort to preserve its choice structure, Vernon bowed out of Act 46 talks and has voted itself out of a regional educational union.
Act 46 study committee representatives from the remaining four towns pressed ahead with a plan to merge their districts. The plan, which was approved by the state Board of Education in September, called for one nine-member board to oversee a unified budget but did not call for any school closures.
The study committee, in its final articles of agreement, declared that “moving to a unified district will result in one mission and vision benefitting all our students.”
But opposition continued to mount in the weeks prior to the vote, with numerous green yard signs urging residents to “vote no” on the merger. Local opinion pages were filled with letters assailing the merger, and opposition information was collected on a website.
There also was controversy about the study committee’s efforts to publicize and promote its plan: One member, Ian Torrey of Brattleboro, resigned after protesting the “tone and nature” of informational meetings and objecting to the content of a mailer sent to voters.
Windham Southeast Superintendent Lyle Holiday said it’s possible that the contentiousness played a role in Tuesday’s outcome. She also remarked on a lack of citizen participation during much of the Act 46 Study Committee’s planning process.
Then again, “maybe people have really done their homework and they just don’t like the merger plan,” Holiday said. “It’s really hard to know how people are thinking.”
Laughlin said she was glad that the study committee’s work “was approved with appreciation by the (state Board of Education) and that our community was able to consider it.”
“Passions in our communities muted much of that consideration, but that is not surprising,” Laughlin said.
Naylor, however, applauded her community’s passion and said Dummerston residents “have been incredibly engaged as a community all the way through.”
“I’m very glad to see how many people came out,” she said. “It made it clear that this is not the way people want to go.”
The question now is whether state officials will accept an alternative governance proposal if one is developed by local residents and officials. Holiday said she’ll be working with Windham Southeast’s school boards in the coming weeks.
She acknowledged that an informal alternative governance committee has been meeting. “But what we don’t know yet is what each of the other school boards want to do,” Holiday said.
Naylor said interested parties will be “working to try and figure out, what are the things that we can do – working together as neighbors.”
The ultimate authority for Windham Southeast’s school governance lies with the state: Under Act 46, the Board of Education must draw up its own plan for districts that haven’t merged. That plan is due by Nov. 30 of 2018.