Last-chance merger passes in Ludlow, Mt. Holly; BRHS to close by June 2020

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Perhaps seeing an outcome that might be inevitable, Ludlow and Mt. Holly residents went to the polls Tuesday and approved a plan that will merge all their schools into one district but will close Black River High School by June 2020 and tuition those students to other schools.

Ludlow kids campaign for a yes vote on the merger proposal. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

The voting was 344 for and 172 against the merger in Ludlow and 341 for and 62 against in Mt. Holly.

In May, Ludlow rejected a merger with Mill Valley that would have closed the high school and sent 7th grade to 12th grade students to the North Clarendon campus, a trip of more than 20 miles for Ludlow students and just under 12 miles for Mt. Holly students. Mt. Holly approved that merger, but an affirmative vote of both towns was needed and Ludlow voted more than 2-1 against.

Earlier in the year, Act 46 study committee representatives from the two towns had rejected a merger with four other towns in the Two River Supervisory Union. That merger also would have closed Black River, and Ludlow and Mt. Holly students would have traveled 13 to 23 miles  to Green Mountain High in Chester.

With this third shot at Act 46 merger compliance, students in the two towns can attend Mill River or Green Mountain or other schools. There is a general expectation that the increase in attendance will be enough of an incentive for those two schools to provide transportation. That’s less likely with other schools.

But transportation and mileage were not the only factors in the decision. From the beginning of the Act 46 study process, residents in both towns looked for ways to keep Black River open. “Don’t kill the Presidents,” shouted one person attending a public meeting before the May vote, referring to the school by its the name of Black River sports teams.

Deborah DeTore casts a ballot in Mt. Holly

Between September 2015 and February 2017, in meeting after meeting of the study committee, the discussion returned to options that would preserve the school, including a “student voice” option presented by students from Green Mountain. That plan would have made the school into an “international business and humanity academy” which would be a second campus for Green Mountain.

But as with all of the options for merging with the rest of the supervisory union, the plans that kept Black River open included substantial tax increases for Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester. Finally, those towns struck off on their own to form a Regional Education District, leaving the door open for Ludlow and Mt. Holly to join it, but those towns rejected the offer and months of bilateral study meetings ensued. That resulted in the Mill River merger plan that failed at the ballot box.

In the end, yet another study committee made up of members from the two towns – looking at both the hurdles involved in keeping Black River open as well as the loss of some state funding and merger incentives – opted to propose closing the high school while giving much stronger protection against closing to the elementary schools than they have in state statute.

Planning for an independent school in Ludlow

With school choice tuition at the heart of the proposal, the vote also opens the way for a group of local residents – including educators – to try to form a new private school that could accept students from around the area as well.

Following Tuesday’s vote, Black River Independent School Committee member Uli Donohue told The Telegraph that her group is optimistic. “We’ve been waiting for the results of the vote and we’re going to get to work tomorrow,” said Donohue. “We’ve made some connections with other independent schools in Vermont and some have even reached out to us.”

Donohue said she expects that state approval for a private school will take a year and a half to two years.

The new board of the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District will have a short window to get up to speed before the Mt. Holly, Ludlow and Black River (U-39) boards go out of existence on July 1, 2018. It will be up to the new board to run the schools and decide whether BRHS will close before the 2020 mandate. The board will share a $150,000 transition grant with the new Green Mountain district, which began organizing in September.

Members of the new board who were elected along with the passage of the merger proposal are:

Ludlow

1-Year Term: Chris Garvey
2-Year Term: Dan Buckley and Mariel Meringolo
3-Year Term: Paul Orzechowski

Mount Holly

1-Year Term: Katherine Hollebeek
2-Year Term: Mary Alberty and Brigid Faenza

3-Year Term: Kelly Tarbell

 

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