Petition results in a re-vote on Ludlow, Mount Holly unified school merger

Black River HS. Photo by Sharon Huntley.

LUDLOW, Vt. – Ludlow residents submitted enough signatures to the Ludlow Town Clerk’s office, a total of 137, to petition the Ludlow Elementary School Board to call for a re-vote on the article that formed the Ludlow, Mount Holly Unified Union School District. As a result, during the recent Ludlow Elementary School Board Meeting on Jan. 3, 2018, the re-vote was warned and the date for the re-vote has now been set for Tuesday Feb. 6, 2018 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Ludlow Town Office.

The push for a re-vote is a result of reported widespread confusion in regards to the initial vote for the merger. Despite having four informational meetings prior to the initial vote, community members commented that they were confused about what their vote really meant. Some voters also reported to School Board Members that they had been told how to vote “to save their school” before they entered the polling station, which impacted their vote.

The initial vote, which took place on Nov. 28, 2017, resulted in a “yes” vote, approving the merger with 344 “yes” votes versus 172 “no” votes. In order to overturn the outcome of the vote, there must be a two-thirds majority, based on the numbers from the first vote tally. In other words, not only must the re-vote garner a two-thirds majority of “no” votes, the physical number of “no” votes must reach at least 230. This is an issue that members of both Ludlow Elementary and U39 School Boards felt might be confusing to voters.

To help clarify both sides of the issue for voters, Ludlow Elementary School will host an informational meeting tentatively scheduled for Monday, Jan. 29. It’s a meeting that LES School Board Chair Lisa Schmidt hopes will be well attended. “There’s just a limbo…I am sad that we have to go through this again. If people clearly didn’t understand then I hope that people will get the information they need to make [their] vote.”

The merger was the result of a need to comply with Act 46, which requires school districts to self-evaluate, talk to other districts, and propose how best to address declining enrollments and promote equitable educational opportunities and financial efficiencies. There were several financial incentives that Ludlow, Mount Holly Unified Union District would receive as a result of the merger, such as trailing tax rate decreases over the first four years and keeping the Small Schools Grants, renamed the Merger Support Grants, for the elementary schools totaling approximately $134,000. Approval of the merger, as proposed by the local study committee, also resulted in the guaranteed closure of Black River Middle School/High School by June of 2020, a particularly emotional issue for many residents. Following the closure, Black River Middle School and High School students are granted school choice, with state tuition dollars following the student to their selected school.

News of a re-vote was of concern to Uli Donohue, the Chair of The Black River Independent School Committee (BRISC). This committee has been making strides to form an independent school called Black River Academy in Ludlow, but which would rely on school choice tuition dollars to be viable. According to Donohue, “If a revote in Ludlow on the Act 46 merger between Ludlow and Mount Holly school districts results in a ‘no’ vote, there will be no school choice for children in Mount Holly or Ludlow for middle and high school and therefore tuition will continue to be paid only to the public Black River Middle and High School, this will make the effort to open Black River Academy as an independent school impossible.”

Should a re-vote overturn the original outcome, that moves the fate of the district into the hands of the State Board of Education, which is required, according to Act 46, Sec. 10, to “realign districts into more sustainable models of governance to meet the goals set out in Act 46, Sec. 2”. The Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe’s proposal for this action is due to the State Board of Education by June 1, 2018, which must act by Nov. 30, 2018.

Response from the Agency of Education confirmed that their Secretary Holcombe’s upcoming proposal, and the State Board’s ultimate requirement, would address the district, but was non-committal on the details. “If the Ludlow School District is not a voluntary member of a new unified union school district (i.e. multi-town district responsible for PK-12) that will be operational by July 1, 2019, then both the Secretary’s proposal and the State Board’s final Statewide Plan will address the district BUT we cannot predict in advance what, if any changes, it will require…”

Holcombe’s office however went on to state, “It is impossible to predict what actions the State Board will require in the Statewide Plan [which is due on Nov. 30, 2018]. That said, the Legislature stated that the best means of creating a sustainable structure capable of meeting the goals is through a unified union school district.”

Schmidt shared her concerns over the state’s plans for Ludlow should the merger fail, “I’m fearful… you get redistricted, it just makes sense, and we’re gonna be put right with TRSU…and now we don’t have a say. They’re all huge risks and which risk do you want to take? Voting yes is a risk, voting no is a risk.”

Schmidt also shared her frustration with Ludlow’s town demographics, “Closing the school and doing choice is not because they’re [Black River Students are] not getting a good education. It’s because we don’t have the numbers.”

The informational meeting to discuss both sides of the issue is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 29, 2018, time and location to be determined. The re-vote is scheduled for Tuesday Feb. 6, 2018 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Ludlow Town Office.

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