HOME PAGE: News - March 3, 2015

Elmore & Morristown Merger Informational

    By Andrew Martin

    Residents in both Morristown and Elmore turned out in large numbers at their respective school district informational meetings to learn more about the potential merger of their two school districts into one larger entity. The meetings, which are held each year before Town Meeting in order to better inform the public about the proposed budgets, also served as informational and discussion forums regarding the merger that the two boards have been informally discussing.
    The Morristown information meeting was held Tuesday, February 24 at 7 p.m. at the Morristown Elementary School library while the Elmore meeting was held on Wednesday, February 25, at 6 p.m. in the Elmore Town Hall. Approximately 30 Morristown and Elmore residents turned out for the meeting in Morrisville while the Elmore meeting was attended by roughly 40 individuals. In addition to the discussions that took place at the two meetings, both boards will be opening up a discussion of the merger during the ‘Other Business’ portion of the school district meeting on Town Meeting Day. At that time both boards will ask voters via a non-binding straw poll if they wish the two boards to formally investigate a merger.
    Both boards want citizens of their respective towns to know that the initial question is only asking that the boards officially investigate merging by forming a committee to investigate the question. There will be no binding vote to merge or not to merge at Town Meeting this year.
    Both meetings began with presentations by Lamoille South Supervisory Union Superintendent Tracy Wrend on the actual proposed budget for the respective school district. Once those presentations were complete and questions on the budget were taken, the conversation turned to the potential merger that the Elmore and Morristown school boards have been discussing in the past few months. A presentation was again given by Superintendent Wrend on the merger, regarding how it could benefit both communities, and what questions or issues need to be addressed before any official vote can happen. During her presentation Wrend stated that the two boards are looking for a win-win-win situation. They want to do what is best for residents of Elmore, residents of Morristown, and most importantly what is best for the students in the two towns.
    Wrend stressed that many of the questions or issues created by a merger would be investigated in depth by a committee that would be formed following both towns giving their boards the go-ahead for a formal study of the idea. The meetings then opened up for comments and questions regarding the merger.
    Several Elmore residents, including the schoolboard, made the trek down Route 12 for the Morristown meeting to learn more about the concept. Most of the questions came from the Elmore group, one person was especially concerned with the potential loss of school choice because that had been a large decision factor in moving to Elmore. Among Morristown residents the main concern was an expected initial bump in taxes, and a feeling of being threatened that if Elmore was to not merge with Morristown, they would be pulling all of their students from Morristown. Elmore Boardmember Stuart Weppler said this wasn't the case, but did feel from the input of their voters in the past that they would be looking for something to do to rectify the increasing tax woes in Elmore.
    One of the main issues raised at the Elmore informational meeting regarding the merger was just how Elmore would be represented on a joint school board for the two towns in the new district. Some residents explained that they feared they would be underrepresented on a merged school board. Superintendent Wrend and the members of the school board explained that on such a joint board Elmore would likely have one voting member while Morristown would have either four or five. That board makeup would be based on population. Wrend also added that open elections that wouldn’t restrict how many members from each town were on the board could also be a possibility. Members of both the Elmore and Morristown boards present at the meeting also explained that even one Elmore representative on the board of a merged district would give Elmore residents more control and representation of how the majority of their students are educated than they have now.
    Another of the main topics of discussion during the Elmore meeting was what exactly would happen to the Elmore School if a merger took place. Wrend explained that one option that could be written into the articles of agreement would be that there will be a fixed period of time that the Elmore School will not be closed unless by a majority vote of the residents of Elmore. Wrend added that the Elmore School provides a unique education experience that is actually more cost effective than most other elementary schools. Two members of the Morristown School Board, Dave McAllister and Stephanie Craig, were present at the Elmore meeting and assured voters that their board has no interest in closing the Elmore School. In fact, they explained that having the option for Morrisville students to attend the Elmore School during years when the smaller school is not at full capacity is a major benefit and resource to Morristown residents.
    “Our board does not have any interest in losing such a unique option for students,” Stephanie Craig stated at the meeting, “The Elmore School is more efficient...We aren’t saying it would never close, but it makes sense financially and educationally to keep the school open.”
    “We aren’t looking to take anything away from Elmore,” Dave McAllister added.
    Other individuals at the meeting stated that they felt merging with the Morristown school district was actually the best way to preserve the Elmore School given the fact that legislators in Montpelier seem to be pushing more and more to close small schools.
    One of the final major discussion points during the Elmore informational meeting centered on the potential loss of school choice for Elmore students in a merged district. Wrend and the members of the Elmore school board explained that while school choice would likely be phased out in a merged district, students that currently utilize school choice in Elmore in terms of the current open program to tuition out 7 through 12 students would be grandfathered and continue to receive it. However, Elmore students in the merged district would have another option once school choice was phased out. This new option would be the statewide lottery-based school choice that is already currently in place in Vermont. This system allows for students in grades 9-12 to apply for school choice to any other public school in Vermont.
    This lottery process allows for up to 10 percent of a school’s resident grades 9 through 12 student population to leave via school choice. Morrisville currently only has 10 students exercising this form of school choice, three of whom are graduating. Peoples Academy can send a total of 21 students at this time, meaning that there would be 14 slots open next year for students applying for school choice. That figure would also increase slightly by roughly three additional slots if all Elmore students were added to the total figures at PA, meaning that 17 slots could be available. There are currently 12 students exercising school choice in Elmore, many of whom go to Stowe. The number of open slots in the new lottery system would also increase slightly over time due to the fact that there are currently more Elmore students at the elementary school level than at the high school level.
    The drawbacks to this new lottery system of school choice as opposed to the current one available in Elmore is the fact that it only applies to students in grades 9-12 instead of 7-12 as well as the fact that students will not have the opportunity to attend St. Johnsbury Academy via the lottery system since St. Johnsbury Academy is considered private for the purposes of the lottery.
    Another potential issue raised by attendees of the Elmore meeting was the potential lowering of property values if school choice is lost to the town. However, several other residents and board members explained that the consistently increasing tax rates in Elmore may have just as much of a negative impact on property values. Questions of whether or not the merger could be dissolved at a later date were also asked. Superintendent Wrend explained that the electorate of both towns could take a combined vote to dissolve the unified district.
    As part of her presentation during the meetings Superintendent Wrend further emphasized that there are several steps required before an official vote on a merger can take place. The first step would be voters in Elmore and Morristown approving on Town Meeting Day an official study of a merger. If that approval is given then a committee would be formed that would investigate, seek community input on, and ultimately create articles of agreement that would govern the merger. After being presented to the two school boards those articles and the plan for the merger would then be sent to the Vermont Board of Education for approval. If approved by the state the plan for the merger would then be presented to the voters in the two towns for approval. Wrend explained that the entire process can stop immediately during any of the steps if the boards or townspeople decide a merger is not feasible. If the merger proposal is presented to voters for approval it would need to be approved in each town separately to take effect.
    “If either town voted no, then the merger would not happen,” Wrend stated. She went on to explain the earliest a vote could occur for the merger would be in November on Election Day of 2015. However, for a vote to occur that soon the entire process would have to move along very quickly.
    Wrend and members of both boards emphasized again that what will occur at Town Meeting this year is simply the two boards asking their voters if a more formal study into a merger should take place in the coming months.
    “It is important to emphasize that the question now is whether or not to embark on a formal study – essentially to work with a committee and engage the community in ironing out the details of a merger agreement,” Wrend explained “There are a number of steps to be taken before the question would come before voters.”
    “We are looking for a yes or no from voters as to whether or not we should move forward with studying the merger,” Elmore School Board Chairperson Penny Jones added, explaining that the vote on Town Meeting Day will simply be a non-binding vote. Depending on what the voters say the two boards will meet following Town Meeting and decide to move forward with the study or not.  Jones added that she has had a discussion with Superintendent Wrend and they believe that the boards will be able to acquire grant funding to cover the majority of the costs that a merger study would require.
    “The Morristown and Elmore school boards have worked collaboratively for many years,” added Morristown School Board Chair Stephanie Craig, “Looking at the way a merger may affect our educational community while being respectful to the taxpayers is our priority as board members.”
    “Conducting a formal study would allow us to gather the necessary information to present to both communities,” Craig continued, “Morristown and Elmore school boards will be engaging community members at town meeting for their thoughts on a possible merger.”
    According to Wrend, there seems to be support thus far for at least undertaking the study.
    “I appreciated the overwhelming support for the community of Elmore voiced repeatedly by Morristown residents at the informational meeting on Tuesday,” Superintendent Wrend stated, “Preliminary, there appears to be support for undertaking a study to flesh out the possibilities further.”
    “It is also important to note that MSD Board members Stephanie Craig and Dave McAllister attended the meeting in Elmore, indicating that Morristown is not trying to sell Elmore on anything,” Wrend continued, adding that Morristown is, rather, looking to serve as a willing partner to work together with Elmore if the voters choose that option.
    “In Elmore, I appreciated the respectful, thoughtful discussion of topics about which people have very strong feelings. The community demonstrated a strong commitment to truly understand the complexities of the issues and working though the questions together,” Wrend concluded, “It is a privilege to serve communities that demonstrate positive values, such as strong support of students, democratic processes and working collaboratively for the benefit of all.”

This Week's Photos

Thirty folks joined the Conservation Commission at Journey’s End for a snowshoe trek as part of Johnson’s Winter Carnival. The trail is marked with lavender survey tape for self-guided walks. Trekkers are reminded that Foote Brook is not completely frozen, making it important for safety to stay on the marked trail. - Sue Lovering photo

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