Act 46 deadline forces a school district vote on Nov. 28

Act 46
Ludlow town sign. Photo provided.

LUDLOW, Vt. – In order to adhere to the State of Vermont’s Agency of Education’s Act 46, which requires school districts to merge into larger districts to realize efficiencies and increase opportunities for students, and to be eligible for the incentives offered through Act 46, the deadline to approve a merger is fast approaching and must happen by Nov. 30, 2017.

Over the course of over two and a half years, several committees have been formed to study the issue. The latest is a formal merger study committee called the 706B Mergers Study Committee, made up of both Ludlow and Mount Holly representatives, which considered four final options. After a thorough analysis, the committee chose to move forward with “Option 1,” selected largely because of financial considerations and student options. This merger proposal was presented to and approved by the State Board of Education, and now goes before the voters of both Ludlow and Mount Holly on Nov. 28, for a yes or no vote. Here’s what Ludlow and Mount Holly residents will be voting on and what a yes vote or a no vote means.

The proposed merger would combine the districts of Ludlow, Mount Holly and Union district 39, which is Black River, into a new unified Pre-K through grade 12, likely to be named Ludlow-Mount Holly Unified Union School District. This district would operate both Ludlow Elementary School and the Mount Holly School, Pre-K through grade six. The district would also operate Black River High School/Middle School until its closure, which would happen no later than June 30, 2020. After Black River High School is closed, the district would provide tuition for students grades 7 through 12 to attend the school of their choice.

Here’s what a yes vote means:

A new unified school district would be formed with Ludlow Elementary, Mount Holly School and Union District #39.

Black River Union High School/Middle School would be closed before June 30, 2020. Once the school is closed, students grades seven through 12 will have school choice and the tuition will be paid equaling the average public school tuition rate as set by the state. The choice of school can be either a public school or an approved independent school. In a practical sense, Ludlow students would likely choose to go to Green Mountain Union High School and Mount Holly students would likely choose to go to Mill River High School. If Ludlow community members have success establishing a Black River Independent School, tuition dollars could also be used for this option.

The district would realize a cost savings of approximately $600,000 in overall educational spending which would result in a 20-cent tax rate decrease in Ludlow and a 12-cent decrease in Mount Holly. Additional merger incentives through Act 46 add an additional 8-cent decrease in year one, and additional 6-cent decrease in year two, 4-cents in year three and 2-cents in year four.

Small School Grants totaling approximately $134,000 would continue in perpetuity, being renamed the Merger Support Grants.

A new school board would be formed with eight total members, four from Mount Holly and four from Ludlow.

The articles of the agreement would provide protection for the both elementary schools, protecting them from closure.

Here’s what a no vote means:

No new district would be formed. The districts would submit a report to the Secretary of Education by the end of 2017 outlining their current governance structure, specifically how it relates to Act 46.

Black River High School/Middle School would remain open in the short term. However, based on the policy goals of Act 46, which requires merger action before 2019, the state would most likely step in to force a merger with the neighboring district, which includes Green Mountain Union High School or they may redraw district lines altogether. Based on all other prior committee(s) research, Black River High School/Middle School would be targeted for closure regardless. When that happens, tuition dollars would follow students to their assigned school, most likely Green Mountain Union High School.

If Ludlow Community members have success establishing a Black River Independent School, tuition dollars could not be used for this option. Choosing a different school, including a possible Black River Independent School, would result in the entire tuition for any other choice other than the assigned public school, being the sole financial responsibility of the parents.

There would be no educational spending decrease, in fact it would likely increase, therefore there would be no tax rate decrease for either town. Also, the additional merger tax incentives extended by Act 46 would go away.

The Small Schools Grants for both elementary schools, totally approximately $134,000 would be eliminated. These are not new dollars, but money that has been critical to the elementary school budgets in the past.

The school board that governs the Ludlow and Mount Holly schools would be comprised of members from all of the schools in the larger district, not solely those of Ludlow and Mount Holly.

The articles of the agreement for the forced merger may not protect the Ludlow and Mount Holly elementary schools.

The State of Vermont’s Agency of Education is intent on their mission to unify districts and realize efficiencies across the state. As community members grapple with the decisions ahead, many are bristling with the idea of losing their beloved community middle school and high school. One thing that everyone can agree on however is that there are no easy answers, and whether your vote is yes or no, the closure of Black River Union High School may be unavoidable. Voting will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 28, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Ludlow Town Hall and Mount Holly town office.

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