Petition dates have passed, school mergers will now move forward
by Lauren Harkawik
Jul 09, 2017 | 2436 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WILMINGTON- With the date to petition for a revote now passed, two Act 46 mergers in the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union are officially moving forward. On May 31, voters in Wilmington and Whitingham approved a merger to officially become the Twin Valley School District. Voters in Readsboro and Halifax voted to merge with one another as well, becoming the Southern Valley School District. In the weeks that followed, it was rumored that a petition to revote in Readsboro might surface, making the Southern Valley School District merger uncertain. With the date for a petition to be turned in now passed, the merger will move forward.

“Readsboro never turned in a petition for revote,” says WSWSU Superintendent Chris Pratt, who says that the next step in the process will be a letter of verification from the secretary of education. Within 60 days of the supervisory union receiving that letter, the new boards will formally organize.

“What usually happens then is the secretary of education comes and opens the first unified board meeting for the new district,” says Pratt.

With the mergers, Wilmington, Whitingham, Halifax, and Readsboro are now in compliance with Act 46, the school governance consolidation law. The towns are complying with Act 46 by forming a side-by-side structure, one of the approved school governance formulations outlined in the law. In a side-by-side, Wilmington and Whitingham will form one district (Twin Valley School District) and Readsboro and Halifax will form another (Southern Valley School District). The individual school districts will exist side by side within the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union. As is a goal of Act 46, Twin Valley School District and Southern Valley School District will each have one school board, one school district budget, and one base education tax rate.

For Wilmington and Whitingham, the merger is a solidification of something that has long been in the works since the towns had already merged their schools and were in a joint contract. “This was something that we needed to do, Act 46 or not,” says Pratt. “It was a natural progression for Twin Valley. I look at it as they were engaged for a long time, and now they’re married.”

For Readsboro and Halifax, the merger is new for each town. Under the new unified district, Readsboro and Halifax will share a school board for the first time. That board will govern two schools — Halifax Elementary and Readsboro Elementary — using one unified budget.

The new unified boards will be made up of members from each town. The Twin Valley School Board will comprise Kathy Larsen, Dennis Richter, Therese Lounsbury, and Janna Ewart from Wilmington and John Doty, Seth Boyd, and Sharon Berry from Whitingham. The Southern Valley School Board will comprise Stephanie Powers, Homer Sumner, and Paul Blais from Halifax and Mary King, Susan Bailey, and Larry Hopkins from Readsboro. Hopkins did not officially run for the board but was elected by write-in votes. All of the board members with the exception of Hopkins and Powers currently serve on their towns’ school boards.

Stamford was also part of the proposed WSWSU mergers that are now taking shape. Originally it was proposed that Stamford, Readsboro, and Halifax merge into one district, but voters there voted the proposal down.

“Rumor has it that Stamford is trying to do something with Clarksburg (Massachusetts),” says Pratt. “I think it’s very unlikely that the state is going to allow that to happen. They’re not opening windows for Vermont students to leave; they’re closing doors. We’re losing enough students every year without assisting in the process. I’m not too optimistic that (a merger between Stamford and Clarksburg) will happen. I’m not certain of what the fate of Stamford will be.”

A big piece of the Act 46 puzzle for many towns, including Readsboro and Halifax, was incentives worked into the law, including retention of the schools’ small schools grants and the 3.5% hold harmless protection. By complying with the law, Readsboro and Halifax will hold on to both. In addition, residents of the towns will receive incrementally diminishing tax reductions for the first four years of the new district in the form of an 8-, 6-, 4-, and 2-cent tax reduction. The Twin Valley towns, which did not qualify for small schools grants, will also receive the diminishing tax reduction and hold harmless protections, according to Pratt.

Pratt says that a lot of work went into making the mergers happen, and a lot of work still lies ahead for the new school boards of each unified district. “We’re happy that we’re at this stage,” says Pratt. “We know we still have a lot of work ahead of us, trying to close old business to start new business. And we have to pace ourselves, because there is still a lot of work to be done. But we’re over the first major obstacle in this process.”

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