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Public Post is a community reporting initiative using digital tools to report on cities and towns across Vermont.Public Post is the only resource that lets you browse and search documents across dozens of Vermont municipal websites in one place.Follow reporter Amy Kolb Noyes and #PublicPost on Twitter and read news from the Post below.

Ludlow Voters Reconsider Black River School Closure

Black River High School Middle School with a snowy lawn and a sign out front that says Our School, Our Community.
Amy Kolb Noyes
Voters in Ludlow and Mount Holly decided to form a unified union school district with school choice in grades seven through 12, which means closing Black River Middle and High School. A petition for a revote was submitted in Ludlow.

Black River High School students, from Ludlow and Mount Holly, have been studying together at Black River since middle school. But unless a vote held in November is reversed, their school could be closing before some of these students graduate.

Andrea Stevens, of Mount Holly, a senior at Black River High School.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Andrea Stevens, of Mount Holly, is a senior at Black River High School. She says she would be sad if the school closes, even though she will have already graduated.

Senior Andrea Stevens knows she’ll be graduating from Black River, but she’s afraid her alumni experience will be less than that of her older friends.

"A lot of my friends, they come home for like games and stuff, and I’m not gonna be able to do that," Stevens says. "If the school closes, like we won’t have the sports teams and stuff."

"It's kind of sad," Stevens adds.

In November, Ludlow and Mount Holly voted to form a unified union school district and, in doing so, move toward school choice for all students in grades seven through 12.

Both towns needed to vote in favor of the article for this to happen, and they did — decisively.

In Ludlow, twice as many people voted for the article than against it. Mount Holly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the merger and eventual school closure.

"When you have 130 kids in your seven through 12, it becomes so it – it becomes unsustainable," says Bruce Schmidt, chairman of the Union 39 school board, which oversees Black River High School and Middle School.

"It’s very hard to keep a school with, you know, less students each year," Schmidt adds.

Generations of Schmidt’s family have graduated from Black River High School, and before that, Black River Academy. But now, he says, Ludlow lacks affordable housing and, therefore, young families aren't moving into town.

Okemo Mountain Resort visible in the background from the parking lot of Black River High School Middle School.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Ludlow is a resort town, as evidenced by the view of Okemo from the school parking lot.

Ludlow is home to Okemo Mountain Resort. Like resort towns across Vermont, the town ends up sending more property taxes to the state than it gets back to fund its schools, as Schmidt explains: "The town of Ludlow sends close to $20 million to support education in the state of Vermont, and we get a small portion of that back."

Schmidt says it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

"That is a very frustrating thing for the people in this town," he says. "As hard ... that they work for their tax dollars, and then they turn around and give that amount of money. And then at the same time it’s like, 'Well, you can’t have anymore money. You gotta close your school.'"

Schmidt says the state isn’t requiring Black River to close. However, he says if they choose to keep it open he foresees what he calls "death by a thousand cuts" – starting with the elimination of the state small schools grant.

Sharon Bixby also has deep roots in Ludlow. She’s one of the people who circulated a petition that forced the revote on the merger and school closure. She says, although the vote tally seemed decisive, the way the ballot was worded was hard to understand.

Signs in support of Black River High School on the snowy campus lawn.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Members of the Black River High School community have posted messages of support for the school on its front lawn.

"The ballot was so confusing, and I know it had to be that way because of the law," Bixby says. "But people were told that 'either way the school's gonna close – you might as well vote yes.' Well, that’s not really true in my mind."

Bixby says there’s a lot at play when it comes to Act 46, the law mandating small school district mergers. And the rules could change.

"We just think there’s so many things up in the air that it’s best to just stay the way we are, make Black River the best school it can be," she says. "There’s nothing wrong with a small school. There’s many in the state that are thriving and I just think that it — the vote — was too soon and there wasn’t enough information settled within the Legislature."

If the vote is upheld in Ludlow next month, Black River will close within two-and-a-half years. Some people are looking forward to the option to send their students to bigger schools in the area. Some people in town plan to pursue reopening Black River as an independent school.

Either way, Bixby says closing the public high school will have a big impact on Ludlow.

"If all the kids are divided up and some are going to Green Mountain [Union High School], some are going to Woodstock, some are going to Mill River, some might choose to go to MSJ [Mount St. Joseph Academy] – wherever they decide to go, you know, that will be lost; that sense of community will be lost," Bixby says.

The revote in Ludlow is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 6.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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