As Ludlow school re-vote nears, info meeting sparsely attended

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A little over two months ago, voters in Ludlow and Mount Holly went to the polls and approved – by wide margins – a merger that would keep their elementary schools open but close Black River High School by July 2020.

But, in late December, a group of Ludlow residents gathered the required signatures to force a re-vote in their town, saying that many voters had misunderstood the wording of the November ballot. That vote will take place on Feb. 6.

Black River alum Marissa Selleck outlines the plan to crreate a new independent high school in Ludlow should BRHS close. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Yet on Monday evening, with little more than a week before the vote, only 20 people showed up to the Ludlow Auditorium for an information meeting on the question. And among that score were several school board members, school employees and members of the public who had already attended many of the meetings held on the topic.

Since the do-over goes by a different set of rules than the Nov. 28 vote, last night’s turnout may not  bode well for those hoping to overturn the vote. Instead of winning by a straight majority, killing the merger will take more than two-thirds of the winning vote from the November balloting. In November, Ludlow voters approved the merger 344-172. That means that on Feb. 6, nixing the merger will require that the “no” vote is larger than the “yes” vote, but also that the  “no” side gets at least 230 votes, which is two-thirds of 344 and 58 more than the 172 the “no” vote got in November.

BRHS alum Marissa Selleck kicked off the comments with a thumbnail sketch of the efforts of a private committee to create an independent high school for Ludlow – to be called Black River Academy – which could accept tuitioned students from both Ludlow and Mt. Holly after BRHS would close.

Sharon Bixby, who helped petition the re-vote, told the board that she was sorry to put them through this, but that it was their last-ditch effort to save the high school.

Study committee chair Mariel Meringolo told Bixby that she respected the political process, but was disappointed to see so few people.

“Why aren’t there people here tonight?” asked Meringolo.

For anyone who has followed the discussion to date, the arguments were substantially unchanged.

Merger consultant Dan French explains that the state is not in the business of keeping small schools open regardless of what the text of Act 46 says.

As in past meetings, Ludlow resident Chris Miele claimed that Act 46 was not designed to close small schools like Black River and that the towns should see if there could be legislative changes this session that would offer a reprieve. And, he added, even without a change in the laws, there is a 90-day window to negotiate terms of a state-imposed merger before it becomes final.

Merger consultant Dan French disagreed, telling the audience that he sees the Agency of Education pushing for greater financial controls and shrinking both school districts and supervisory unions. French said that the state is not trying to keep small schools open and that there is a proposal under consideration to create a “school closing commission.”

French also said that the 90 days was a time for school boards — not the voting public — to have “limited opportunities to negotiate.”

Having had discussions with the AOE, French noted that some supervisory union boundaries are likely to be redrawn as part of the statewide plan to be proposed in July and approved by November 2018. French suspected that could have an effect in this area.

French predicted that a “no” vote would result in Ludlow and Mt. Holly being forced into a merger with the new Green Mountain Unified School District. With minority representation on that board, Ludlow could see Black River closed by that district and the two elementary schools would be under the control of that larger district board rather than locals.

French confirmed that, under the current law, the four towns that comprise the GMUSD could not be forced into a merger and would vote on whether to accept Ludlow and Mt. Holly. As such, they could make it a condition of the merger to close Black River.

U39 board member Dan Buckley floats his idea of a local option tax that would support both a local private high school and – indirectly – the public school.

One relatively new and novel idea floated by Black River High (U39) board member Dan Buckley would be to enact a 1 percent local option sales tax to help fund the private Black River Academy.

The tax would raise about $900,000, he said. With one-third going to the state of Vermont, the remaining $600,000 would not only help the new school operate, but also fund the elementary schools through income that school district would receive by leasing the current high school to the new private school.

Saying he was not a lawyer, French congratulated Buckley on the “good homework” but noted that, “You are operating a very expensive little high school right now.” French called on the group not to confuse the issue and noted that the current situation is not sustainable.

The merger re-vote will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6 at the Ludlow Town Hall, 37 Depot St.

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