News analysis: What ‘yes’ and ‘no’ mean in Ludlow-Mt. Holly merger vote

By Shawn Cunningham
©2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, voters in the towns of Ludlow and Mt. Holly will once again go to the polls to decide what course to take in educating their primary and secondary students. But according to merger consultant Dan French, this will be their last chance to control their education destiny.

Merger consultant Dan French walks the meeting through the merger work to date and the articles of agreement at the Oct. 26 information meeting. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Last year, the two towns – through their Act 46 study committee representatives — rejected the merger that created the Green Mountain Unified School District,  which now consists of Chester, Cavendish, Andover and Baltimore.

This spring, Ludlow’s no votes killed a proposed merger with Mill River and now the districts are down to their last chance to do a deal. After Nov. 30, they will be beyond the deadline that triggers state action to impose a merger on Ludlow and Mt. Holly.

What follows is an analysis of what could happen if the proposal passes and if it does not.

If the Yes vote prevails

If both towns vote “yes,” the Mt. Holly and Ludlow town school districts will be merged into a new district along with U-39, which operates Black River High. Beginning on July 1, 2018, the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District would operate the towns’ two elementary schools as well as Black River High School. By June 30, 2020, the high school must be closed and students in grades 7 through 12 will be able to choose the middle or high school they wish to attend. The new district will pay their tuition.

The three school boards would cease to exist and one new board would operate all of the schools in the district. The Nov. 28 ballot also includes candidate for this new board. The candidates are:

For Ludlow

  • 1 one year – Chris Garvey
  • 2 two year – Dan Buckley and Mariel Meringolo
  • 1 three year – Paul Orzechowski

For Mt. Holly

  • 1 one year – Katherine Hollebeek
  • 2 two year – Mary Alberty, Brigid Faenza or Shireen Geimer
  • 1 three year – Sebastian Frank or Kelly Tarbell

The new school board would take over in the 2018-2019 school year. While the board must close Black River High School in two years, it could elect to do it earlier than the June 2020 mandate. This might become necessary if teachers and other staff begin accepting jobs ahead of the closure and a teacher shortage becomes troublesome.

At the Oct. 26 meeting Joann Wilson questions how a new district would ensure the quality of education during a transition to tuitioning students

Choice, tuition and
an independent school

With “choice,” the district would have to pay the actual education cost as tuition for a student attending any Vermont public school. For example, in the 2015-16 school year, Mill River tuition was $15,053 and Green Mountain was $14,279. (For reference, Black River High’s education cost per student was $17,368.)

For a student going to a private or out-of-state school, the district would pay the state’s average net education per pupil cost, which in 2015-16 was $14,598. There are currently 131 secondary school students at Black River High, according to the articles of agreement.

There’s concern that choice could lure second homeowners to try to establish residency to have the district pay a portion of their children’s tuition in private schools elsewhere. According to French, to control costs, the district should have “solid policies and solid procedures in place” and perform residency investigations. These would involve clerical time and some site visits and the added cost to the district has not been estimated.

In the future, district voters could change from “choice” to “designation,” where up to three schools would be chosen and those would be the only schools to which students could be tuitioned. This could become an issue if a group of local residents is successful in establishing a local private school.

The group, calling itself the Black River Independent School Committee, has begun work on a plan to start a private school that could receive tuitioned students. While it is still early in the effort, the group has lined up a number of consultants and experts who could begin work if the merger proposal passes. The group has also begun a crowd funding effort. They see a future in which “designation” would include their school as well as Mill River and Green Mountain.

Open questions remain: Buses

Questions of how tuitioned students will get to school will be addressed by the new board if the merger is approved. File photo

Open questions include how the new board would handle transportation.  While it would have to provide buses for its elementary students, whether and how it would get secondary students to a central point to be picked up by the choice school would have to be decided by the new board.

Of course, that supposes that the secondary school decides to send buses. But since it would be a big plus for a school to substantially increase its enrollment, nearby schools would likely provide transportation from Ludlow and Mt. Holly.

As for schools farther afield such as Burr & Burton in Manchester, it’s likely that students choosing those schools would have to make their own transportation arrangements. Some have suggested that economically disadvantaged students would have less choice and therefore less educational opportunity because of that transportation disparity.

And, of course, taxes

The Two Rivers Supervisory Union has calculated that the merger — after the closing of Black River High — would save more than $600,000 per year, which could translate into tax savings of $0.20 per $100 of assessed property value for Ludlow and $0.12 for Mt. Holly. The supervisory union notes that these are estimates only and that actual numbers could vary.

An approved merger would also come with incentives such as temporary tax reductions. These are $0.08 per $100 in the first year, $0.06 in the second, $0.04 in the third and $0.02 in the fourth. The merger would also preserve the small schools funding and the “phantom student” protection that keeps tax rates from spiking if student populations drop more than 3.5 percent from year to year. There is also incentive money to help with the transition.

“Voter approval of the new Green Mountain Unified School District made that district independently eligible for a Transition Facilitation Grant of $150,000 – less money already paid for the consulting services grant,” Donna Russo-Savage, principal assistant to the secretary of education told The Telegraph. “The grant will be shared by the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District if the voters in those communities approve creation of the new unified district.” That means that the new Green Mountain Unified District will receive less than the $150,000 it expected for the transition.

The merger would also give the two elementary schools greater protection from being closed than exists in statute. Under the proposal, closing an elementary school would take the unanimous approval of the board and a vote by the town in which the school is located.  In addition to protecting the elementary schools from closing, the proposal requires that the new board expand elementary school choice within the district.

Finally, a town that pays tuition to other schools for its students generally has no representation on the boards of those schools.

If a No vote prevails

An overwhelming no vote by Ludlow residents stopped a merger with Mill River in May setting up the process that led to the Nov. 28 vote

If either town votes “No” on Nov. 28, the districts will remain separate, Black River High School will remain open and the process will continue, but without any participation from voters.

By Dec. 26, the districts would have to submit a report explaining to the state Agency of Education how continuing in the way they operate would satisfy the goals of Act 46, which was intended to increase student’s educational opportunities while finding savings from consolidation. The districts will also have to meet with another district or districts “to discuss ways to promote improvement throughout the region.”

It’s unlikely that the status quo would satisfy the AOE as an acceptable structure know as a  “side by side” since that setup calls for two districts governed in different ways. With  two elementary schools and one middle/high school, the resulting organization would be the same as that operated by the new Green Mountain Unified School District and therefore unacceptable.

A statewide plan

Between December and June, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe has to craft a statewide proposal outlining the governance changes to be made in the districts that have not yet merged. By statute she must review proposals from the districts and have “conversations” with those districts. By Nov. 30, 2018, after public hearings and consideration, the State Board of Education will issue a final plan and “publish … its order merging and realigning districts and supervisory unions where necessary.”

While the closing of BRHS has been an emotional issue only about 35 people attended the Oct 26 meeting.

It’s difficult to predict what would happen to the schools of Ludlow and Mt. Holly under such a plan. It’s unlikely that the state would close local elementary schools, according to Act 46 consultants. But the districts could be compelled to merge with another district which would then operate those schools. In any event, the AOE could not break apart the union that operates Black River (although the legislature could) so whichever way a forced merger goes, all of the high school students would follow.

A school district like Green Mountain might be asked to take the Ludlow and Mt. Holly schools as new members in a merger, but it would be up to the voters in that district to approve the addition.

Taxation and representation

A “No” vote would mean the loss of the four years of tax rate incentives that come with an approved merger. In addition, the towns would lose the “phantom student” protection and more than $130,000 in small school grants. While the proposal does not spell out are the tax implications turning down the merger, but without the hold harmless protection for large drops in student population, the stage could be set for a jump in per pupil spending and thus a bump up in taxes.

Ironically, if voters turn down the proposal and the state compels a merger with another school system, one of the benefits would be that the state is also likely to mandate board representation for the towns.

For answers to specific questions, voters can attend the last two information meetings before the vote.

  • Thursday, Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. in the Ludlow Elementary School Gymnasium at 45 Main St.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. in the Mount Holly School Gymnasium at 150 School St.

 

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