Two Addison County towns in limbo over school merger withdrawals
In 2015, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 46. The law was intended to make education more equitable and sustainable in the face of declining enrollment, by consolidating school administration. As a result, some towns have abandoned small school districts and merged with nearby communities.
And in a lot of places around the state, this process has been fraught. One place where things have gotten especially sticky is Addison County.
Anna Van Dine and Abagael Giles spoke on Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Abagael Giles: All right, so there are two towns in Addison County, Ripton and Lincoln, that have been in the process of withdrawing from merged districts for a while now. How did that come about?
Anna Van Dine: Act 46... is kind of a starting point for this tale of two towns. That legislation led small districts across the state to merge with nearby districts. Some mergers were voluntary, others were mandated by the state.
Either way, something at the heart of the law — and many of the local decisions that followed — is the combination of rising costs and declining enrollment. And that’s a big reason why, in some places, school closures ended up on the table.
Some people were really against this, they wanted to be certain their small schools would stay open. So they withdrew from their merged districts to try to keep local control. This is what happened with Lincoln and Ripton. Each of these towns was worried their small elementary school would be closed, so they began the process to leave their districts.
But now, it looks like going it alone might not work out for them.
OK, let’s take this one town at a time. What’s the deal with Ripton?
So Ripton is a pretty small town in the Green Mountains. The population was 739 at the 2020 census, and it has fewer than 90 K-12 students. And to make sure their elementary school would stay open, the people there waged a successful campaign to leave the Addison Central School District. At least, it was successful up to a point.
The process went something like this: Ripton voted to withdraw, then the other towns in the district voted to let them go. Then there was a lengthy and complicated discussion with the State Board of Education, which has authority over these kinds of things. It’s more convoluted than I can get into here, but the most recent thing that happened was that the State Board said it wasn’t feasible for Ripton to go it alone, mostly because of finances. Which kind of puts them back to square one.
Molly Witters is the vice chair of the Ripton School Board.
"I've learned more about sort of how democracy really works in Vermont, and, you know, sometimes I've wanted to hit my head on the grain bin," she said.
So next month, Ripton is planning to hold a vote on whether or not to rejoin ACSD.
OK, and what about Lincoln?
Lincoln is also a small town, with a population of just over 1,300 people, and around 170 K-12 students. They also voted to leave their consolidated school district, the Mount Abraham Unified School District, for the same reasons that Ripton left ACSD: to keep local control of their elementary school.
In fact, Ripton and Lincoln were actually thinking about joining forces. They wanted to form their own supervisory union where there would be a Lincoln district and a Ripton district, and they’d share things like a central office and special education resources, but keep their elementary schools.
But now that Ripton isn’t moving forward, Lincoln has to figure things out for themselves. And they don’t have the same option Ripton does to return to the district they left.
"I've learned more about sort of how democracy really works in Vermont, and, you know, sometimes I've wanted to hit my head on the grain bin."Molly Witters, vice chair of the Ripton School Board
And why’s that?
Well, back in the spring, the Legislature passed Act 176. This essentially revised some of the statutes that govern school district mergers and withdrawals. It also included some provisions that were specific to Ripton and Lincoln, like giving them the option to vote to return to their original district if they were unable to go forward.
But Lincoln didn’t want Act 176 to apply to them, because they felt it would be restrictive. So they asked the State Board to approve their withdrawal before the law went into effect. And the State Board did that. But board chair Oliver Olsen had pretty strong words about Lincoln’s decision, calling it “reckless" and "irresponsible.”
"They voted themselves off the island," Olsen said. "They got into a life raft. And they essentially pushed themselves beyond the point of no return."
And he says they’re legally bound to that life raft, and that getting off it could require legislative action, though Lincoln disputes that.
Why are the State Board of Education and these towns so at odds? When it comes down to it, they all want students to be educated, right?
The tension point here really seems to be that these entities have different operating principles that are driving their decisions.
The State Board of Education has a legal responsibility. Their prerogative, under Vermont law, is to think about school governance. Large-scale things like districts and supervisory unions.
But the people in these towns care about school buildings, and the impact it would have on their community to not have one.
Jen Oldham, the school board chair in Lincoln, told me she feels like the State Board doesn’t understand why this is so important to them.
"It's an engine for community in Lincoln," Oldham said. "It's also an incredibly good school that's had dedicated teachers for years. It's always had extremely good educational outcomes. And it's you know, it's a rallying point for many, many, many Lincoln residents."
She says it’s about things like community gardens, the plays the kids put on, volunteering at the school, the draw for young families to move there. For her, having a local school gives people a reason to be a community, and not just a town.
So what happens next?
Like I mentioned, Ripton’s planning to hold this vote in September on whether or not to rejoin ACSD. In the meantime, they say they’re going to ask the district about the possibility of a charter change, which would essentially say that the voters in a town have to approve any school closures proposed by the district. Which is what people in Ripton said they wanted all along.
Lincoln’s situation is a bit murkier. Their next steps should become more clear at the State Board of Education meeting in September.
Are these controversies in Addison County going to be replicated? Does this have any impact across the state?
Well, something else of note is that because of Act 176, no future withdrawals are going to look quite like Ripton’s and Lincoln’s. The law requires towns to have a plan before voting to withdraw, rather than coming up with one after, so a withdrawal can’t really be used as a proxy for something like keeping a school building open. Act 176 also imposes a moratorium on school closure for two years, until 2024.
At the same time, State Board of Education Chair Oliver Olsen says there are some lessons to take away from this situation in Addison County, like how passionate people can be in their communities:
"If there isn't support for, you know, potential closure, the school board should understand that that could really spiral out of control into some other actions, as we've seen in Addison County," he said.
On the other hand, he says that it’s been made clear that the withdrawal process and trying to strike out on one’s own isn’t as simple as it might seem.