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Blinkhorn: Kennedy And Dresden

Fifty years ago this week, President Kennedy signed one of the last bills before his assassination, a week later. The bill created what many believe was the first inter-state school district in the nation - the Dresden School District, serving students from Norwich, Vermont and Hanover, New Hampshire, a short distance away from each other, across the Connecticut river.

The Rivendell Inter-state School district, joining three Vermont towns – Fairlee, West Fairlee, and Vershire - plus Orford in New Hampshire – came later, in 1998.

Hanover and Norwich have retained their respective elementary school districts. However, Hanover sends its 6th grade students to the Richmond Middle school in Hanover, while Norwich six graders continue in the Marion Cross school in Norwich before going to Richmond in the seventh grade.

Students in both towns are eligible to go to Hanover high school.

If that formula sounds more like calculus than basic math, consider the labyrinth of public meetings and approvals that were required to give birth to Dresden. The story began when Norwich realized that it needed a bigger high school to accommodate a growing student population. The options: Build a new one in Norwich or try to work out a better deal with Hartford or Hanover to get better access to their high schools.

The idea for an inter-state school district apparently emerged in a White House education conference during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. But there was at least one big obstacle. According to the US Constitution, states cannot enter into any agreement or compact with another state without the consent of the US Congress. And before that consent could be secured, local citizens and their state legislatures had to approve.

Now, fortunately, some sharp, committed citizens from Norwich and Hanover quickly helped facilitate matters. They included two prominent Dartmouth professors – the late William Whitney Ballard, professor emeritus of biology, and the late mathematics professor, John Kemeny, who later became Dartmouth president. The local communities and both state legislatures approved the idea and the authorization bill sailed easily through Congress, at a time when things still worked in Washington. The president signed and that was that. Almost.

Then lawyers got into the act. Since Hanover and Norwich had to pass bonds to help finance upgrading of the Hanover schools, a Boston law firm representing the bonding broker questioned the legality. Supreme Courts in both states eventually declared the process legal and Dresden was born.

Why the name Dresden? According to some historians, in Colonial days there was a settlement in the Upper Valley made up of several towns on both sides of the river, extending to where Claremont and Windsor are today. It was in part made up of German settlers, from whence comes the name Dresden.

Tom Blinkhorn worked for 30 years in international development with the World Bank in Africa, India, and the former Soviet Union. Before that he worked for 12 years as a reporter for US and Canadian newspapers.
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