On Town Meeting day, Wardsboro voters defeated a proposal to merge with Dover and Marlboro to satisfy the requirements of Act 46. The merger was voted in the affirmative by Dover. Marlboro also voted no to the merger, but school officials there have said they do not anticipate a re-vote on the matter.
“We did have a petition go out for a re-vote,” said Wardsboro School Board Chair David Sklar at a public meeting on Wednesday. “It was done by a member of the public. So that’s happening.”
The re-vote will likely happen on May 1, with at least two public informational meetings leading up to the vote, including a meeting with Donna Russo Savage and Brad James from the Vermont Agency of Education, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 6:30 pm at Wardsboro Elementary.
If Wardsboro re-votes in the affirmative, the merger with Dover will move forward as originally proposed. Should Wardsboro vote “no” on the merger again, both Wardsboro and Dover will need to figure out what to do next.
Under Act 46, towns that do not voluntarily merge by June 30 will not receive incentives that are built into the law, including a $150,000 grant to cover costs associated with forming a new merged district; incrementally diminishing tax reductions; and, perhaps more consequential for Wardsboro and Dover, protections around funding the schools receive.
If a school that receives a small school grant, which Wardsboro and Dover both do, voluntarily merges by June 30, that grant remains by being converted to a merger grant. Another big piece of the puzzle for Wardsboro is its hold harmless protection, which is not guaranteed if the school remains unmerged by June 30. Under the 3.5% hold harmless provision, a district's residential tax payers are protected from the full impact on their homestead tax rate if the number of equalized pupils drops by more than 3.5%. In a hypothetical example, if a school lost 10% of its 100 equalized students from one year to the next, the homestead tax rate would be calculated based on per-pupil spending for 96.5 students, rather than 90 students.
“It’s a concern for Wardsboro,” said board member Dwight Boerum. “We have declining populations in Wardsboro. There will be monies lost if current trends continue.”
Throughout the meeting, school officials and residents noted that they are looking at how Act 46 is written today. There are a few pieces of legislation on the table in Montpelier, S.122, H.7, H.15, and S.15, that could affect timelines for the law. However, with the fate of those pieces of legislation uncertain, the current law is all that is available to the board.
The merger and what it could mean for the town is heavy on the minds of many residents in Wardsboro, who will now consider the matter deeply leading up to the re-vote. Resident Kathy Anderson said there are fears among Wardsboro residents that a merger could cause taxes to go up and make the town an undesirable place to live. She said she had heard some residents say they may consider moving depending on how the merger vote goes.
“It’s great that we have these incentives up front, but we also need to look at how this affects the town and the viability of the town,” said Anderson. “Depending on how the merger goes, does our school become unviable potentially? Does our tax rate go up more because of the expenses of having a merged school board? Is there a potential that this merged school board could cost us more? It’s about whether this merger is better for the town or not better for the town.”
Those questions and more will be explored and discussed as the town holds its public meetings leading up to the May 1 vote.
A school board meeting with the AOE is scheduled for Tuesday, April 4, at 6:30 pm at Wardsboro Elementary. A public informational meeting will be scheduled for Monday, April 24, possibly at Town Hall pending its availability. Both meetings are open to the public.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly explained the hold harmless provision.