By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer
HALIFAX — Two communities making up the K-8 school district known as Southern Valley Unified Union School District are considering a breakup.
It would be the first in Vermont since the 2015 education law Act 46 brought about mergers in the interest of improving student equity and finding inefficiencies in the face of declining enrollment in schools statewide.
“I don’t think either town has seen a benefit from being merged, monetarily or educational,” said Homer “Chum” Sumner, chairman of the Southern Valley Unified Union School District board.
A special town meeting in Halifax is warned for 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 30, at the Halifax Elementary School. Residents will be asked if Halifax should withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District.
Readsboro will hold a vote at a special town meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 20. Both votes were prompted by petitions brought forward by residents.
Ted Fisher, director of communications and legislative affairs for the Vermont Agency of Education, pointed to a process in Vermont law saying a town could withdraw from a unified union school district if it voted in favor of doing so then voters from the other towns in the district also voted in favor of the town’s withdrawal.
“Then the State Board [of Education] would review to ensure that the students in both districts have schools to attend — either ones operated by the district or ones that will accept the district’s students on a tuition basis,” he wrote in an email.
He noted that in this case, either community voting to leave following the process would dissolve the district.
Sumner attributed the calls for withdrawal to “taxpayers thinking it was not beneficial to stay as a unified union school district.”
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For his town of Halifax, he cited an approximately $1.6 million renovation project being planned for Readsboro Central School. He said Readsboro taxpayers likely did not like a decision to send middle school students to the Halifax school this year.
While the change presented challenges, Sumner described it as the only benefit of the merger as he said students are happy with the education they are getting.
Ultimately, however, the board decided that students from Readsboro will be staying at Readsboro Central next year.
“The parents of Readsboro were not real receptive … and transportation is a pain,” Sumner said. “So as a unified union school board we said, ‘All right, seventh and eighth grade will go back to Readsboro and we’ll have to hire a teacher.'”
Sumner said at risk with the district dissolution is the small schools grant — something the communities were initially told they would lose if they did not merge.
“Each school would have to apply for it each year but the small schools grant would be available if you met certain criteria with your education system or whatever,” he said.
Criteria for getting the funding would involve the size of the schools and either geographic isolation or academic and fiscal excellence.
Fisher said if the district dissolves, tax rate reductions offered to merged districts under Act 46 would be discontinued for both towns.
“Tax rate reductions are no longer available for newly created union school districts,” he said.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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