A major concern in Wardsboro has centered around school closure. The debate has been whether the articles of agreement protect Wardsboro residents’ right to make the final call on whether or not to close the school in a hypothetical future vote, in the event the new unified school board decided closing the building was necessary.
Article 15 of the articles of agreement for the proposed merger reads, in part, “No schools will be closed within its boundaries after the effective date of merger unless the electorate of the town in which the school is located consents to closure.” But Sebastian said it was her understanding that, per Vermont law, the article could be changed by the new unified district’s board without a vote of the electorate because it was not written out in full text in the warning for the vote.
“There’s nothing in the warning about closing schools,” said Sebastian. “It does not count (to have) references to article numbers and sections.”
However, on Tuesday, correspondence to the school board from Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Bill Anton appeared to contradict that statement. Anton said WCSU’s attorney, Chris Leopold, pointed him to Article 1, section C of the warning, which reads, in part, “The complete provisions of Articles 7, 8 and 15 regarding special funds, indebtedness, real and personal property and continuity of school buildings are set forth in the Final Report and are incorporated in their entirety by reference herein.”
In correspondence with The Deerfield Valley News, Donna Russo-Savage at the Agency of Education confirmed that because the language reads “Are incorporated in their entirety by reference herein,” the listed numbers are not merely a reference; the full text of those articles is included in the warning despite not being written out. Russo-Savage added, “Article 15 can only be amended in the future by a vote of the electorate. The board cannot change it.”
Anton said that per Leopold, including additional language on the matter would have been redundant and unnecessary. Dover’s Town Meeting warning did include such language. Article 1 of Dover’s warning read, in part, “No elementary school shall be closed without a unanimous vote of the River Valleys Unified School District Board, and an affirmative vote of the town in which it is located.”
At Monday’s meeting, board member Jim Thomas said he didn’t understand why the discussion kept coming back to school closure. “Why would either town - what would a reason be for a school board to close another school,” said Thomas. “Why are we so afraid that this unified board is going to close one of the schools? It is hypothetical.”
Board member Mike McCusick said he was frustrated to be hearing about issues with the warning language so late in the process. “Have you been involved for the past two years?” McCusick asked Sebastian. He asked the same question of Moran.
Sebastian said she was unable to participate initially, but that she has had more time recently and has done extensive research into the matter. Moran said he has “spoken vociferously against Act 46” since the beginning. “My approach from day one has been to come with a fair structure that protects the integrity of Dover and Wardsboro schools,” said Moran.
When McCusick asked why the issue with the text in the warning hadn’t been raised earlier, Sebastian said, “It takes time to work through this!”
The board asked the pair what they would like to have happen, and both said that although they thought the side-by-side model currently being proposed between Dover and Wardsboro was fine, they wanted more time, during which the language of the articles of agreement and warning could be strengthened so as to better protect Wardsboro. “We’re saying there’s a problem with the language of the articles of agreement and the warning used for this vote,” said Sebastian.
More time may or may not be possible, but that answer might not come before the May 1 revote, depending on what happens in the Legislature. Pending legislation S.122 seeks to extend timelines for implementation of the law, and could give Wardsboro until November 30 to voluntarily merge. Under Act 46, tax incentives, including retention of a school’s small school grant and hold harmless protections, are only available to those who merge voluntarily within stated deadlines. As the law is written now, that deadline is July 1. According to Russo-Savage at an April 4 meeting in Wardsboro, Dover, and Wardsboro do not have enough time to create, present, and vote on new articles of agreement before July 1.
Chair David Sklar said it’s important to be mindful of pending legislation, but that the town shouldn’t count on it. School officials also expressed curiosity as to whether the involved process of forming a study committee, writing articles of agreement, getting state approval, and holding a public vote could unfold before November 30.
Still, Moran and Sebastian said they felt more time was necessary. “This whole process has been too much of a rush being forced on communities by the state,” said Sebastian. “There are about a hundred communities other than Wardsboro that have been struggling with this. That have been trying like we have, using due diligence, to achieve what Act 46 is set out to do. And we need more time.”
It has been clear in discussions leading up to the revote that the school, and its viability, is an emotional and strong issue for many in Wardsboro. Moran said he has been “very concerned about the integrity of the Wardsboro school,” and that he was frustrated when, following the vote at Town Meeting, discussions from Anton and Rep. Laura Sibilia immediately turned to a reconsideration vote.
“A few of us found that to be a condescending statement to the town of Wardsboro, that the first comment would be, you can have a revote,” said Moran. “My sense was, Wardsboro voted. And we should honor the fact that Wardsboro had an opinion that wasn’t consistent with the state’s position. I would have appreciated if people outside of the town had started by saying, we appreciate that the people of Wardsboro have opinions. I’m not criticizing the revote, I’m just raising the concern that very quickly it was about let’s have a revote instead of let’s hear what Wardsboro had to say.”
Board member Dwight Boerem said he thought there was a silver lining in the revote process. “Since Town Meeting day there’s been a lot of tension in Wardsboro,” said Boerem. “And we’ve had an opportunity to take a deep breath and I think it’s a good thing to revote and really think about what we’re voting on.”
“Prior to the vote there wasn’t a lot of interest in what the school board was doing,” said Sklar. “Nobody ever came to our meetings. So part of the benefit of doing this has been engaging the public to what the school board is doing, and I appreciate that. It’s really hard to make decisions on behalf of the town staring at the same four people month after month.”
The reconsideration vote will occur on Monday, May 1, from 10 am to 7 pm at Wardsboro’s town office.