TRSU Act 46 panel picks merger option that could close Black River HS

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A crowd of about 70 watch as the TRSU Act 46 Study Committee discusses the options for a merger. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

A crowd of about 70 watch as the TRSU Act 46 Study Committee discusses the options for a merger. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

With about 70 people in attendance at Ludlow’s Town Hall on Wednesday night, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee voted to go forward with an option that would – if approved by voters – dissolve the Ludlow-Mount Holly school district and unify the middle and high schools. The vote was 12 to 2.

Option 2, as it has become known, would allow Mount Holly to join with Mill River – if approved by those voters – and would most likely mean closing Black River High School and sending Ludlow secondary students to Green Mountain Union High School in Chester.

In making the motion to “go down the path” of Option 2, Alison DesLauriers, a Chester representative on the committee, specified that Baltimore, Mount Holly and Ludlow be “advisable” while Chester, Andover and Cavendish be deemed “necessary.” Those terms relate to whether a town’s vote is binding on the entire plan. If any of the necessary towns vote no, it’s back to the drawing board, while if an advisable town votes no, that town would not be part of the new district created by the plan and would have to make other arrangements to be part of a school district.

The option still has several phases to go through before it becomes reality, including creation of a plan, approval of the plan by the state school board and approval of the plan by voters.

Straw poll foreshadowed ‘fist to five vote’

Last Wednesday’s board vote was foreshadowed by the weighted straw poll taken at the committee’s Dec. 6 meeting in Baltimore.

Calling the previous week’s action an “indicator” rather than a vote, consultant Stephen Dale said he wanted to explore options for reaching a greater consensus. Dale asked for a “fist to five” show of hands to gauge the depth of support for the option. Holding up a fist signified that the member was totally against while showing five fingers was total acceptance.

Dale noted that only two people held up one or two fingers and most of the rest of the group held up three, four and five. Saying that under Option 2 on “July 1, 2018 Black River High School is closed,” Ludlow representative Bruce Schmidt said he was “really struggling with it.”

In one of two "fist to five" votes, committee members gauge their enthusiasm for Option 2

In one of two ‘fist to five’ votes, committee members gauge their enthusiasm for Option 2.

There were a number of questions about particular consequences of Option 2 including whether or not any school could be closed immediately under Act 46. Dale told the board that many of those issues could be worked out through negotiations during writing the articles of association.

Dale asked for another show of fingers for Option 3, which would form a regional education district around the schools that feed into Green Mountain, plus Baltimore if Baltimore voted for it. Ludlow and Mount Holly would become a separate school district. Under this “side by side” plan, Ludlow and Mount Holly would lose the four-year tax incentives offered by Act 46 along with small schools grants and the hold-harmless protections against tax rate spikes due to large declines in student population.

Committee chair Sebastian Frank of Mount Holly noted that under Option 3, the projections show a tax increase of 43 cents per hundred in five years. Those attending the session responded with a collective gasp.

Committee member David Venter asked Meg Powden, superintendent of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, about the status of Option 2B, which he said would keep the Black River High School building open as an academy or a magnet school.

Powden said that her team had not yet had time to work on it, but that she was “strongly for” a personalized proficiency learning center. But there seems to never have been an Option 2B. According to the minutes of the Baltimore meeting, the learning center was put forward as a third variant of Option 1, which was proposed by the TRSU administration, and 2B was a suggestion by Mount Holly Elementary Principal Craig Hutt Vater  (who is not a member of the study committee) as a way to make Option 2 more palatable. It was not brought up again until after the weighted ranking and then only in passing.

Christopher Adams, the TRSU director of finance, told the board that if Mount Holly were to leave the Ludlow district, it would take with it about one-third of the district’s budget and that if the Black River building was kept open, there would be little or no savings realized in the merger. Adams said that some small savings could be realized by moving the supervisory union from Fletcher Farm to the Black River building.

Closing Black River and sending middle and high school students to Green Mountain would save roughly $1.4 million, Adams told The Telegraph in an interview on Thursday. That savings could go toward enhancing educational opportunities for students in the district.

Chester representative Marilyn Mahusky noted that these were hard choices but it seemed to her that Option 2 made the most sense for education. DesLauriers reminded the committee that it would have to put a plan in front of the state Board of Education that shows an increase in educational opportunities.

Students, teachers plea for their schools

At the end of the meeting, the 15 minutes set aside for public comment stretched to nearly 45 minutes with often emotional pleas by students and parents. What was notable though was how diverse the opinions were. One Black River graduate said she was accepted at every college she wanted to go to and a Mount Holly parent said he preferred to send his children to Black River or Green Mountain rather than the larger Mill River school.

Another Mount Holly parent told the board that she moved her family here knowing that when her kids reached secondary school age, she would have to move elsewhere for them to have educational opportunities.

And Mariel Meringolo, who said she speaking as a parent of a 1-year-old child and and not as the head of the Okemo Mountain School, said that it appeared that closing Black River was the direction things were going and she wondered if BRHS building could be an independent school with school choice for Ludlow.

After the meeting, Meringolo told The Telegraph that starting an independent school would be a big undertaking requiring a lot of people to pitch in. She added that no steps had been taken thus far toward exploring the possibility, but it is an idea that keeps coming back to her.

There will be public meetings at which the committee will negotiate the details of the merger plan to be sent to the State Board of Education. These will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11 at Cavendish Elementary and on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at Chester-Andover Elementary. There will also be a joint meeting of all of the school boards in the supervisory union on Tuesday, Jan. 24 Green Mountain Union High and a final meeting of the committee to make any last minute edits before sending the plan to the board of education.

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  1. Sebastian Frank says:

    The Chester Telegraph is the only media outlet covering this important debate. Thank you. There is a rapidly evolving conversation occurring at school board meetings in Ludlow and Mount Holly and the public needs more reporters to sift through the complexities. I hope the Telegraph can expand its coverage farther west and with more frequency. The western half of Two Rivers is crackling with debate. Reporters — come west!

  2. Stu Lindberg says:

    The irony of this is that ACT 46 was the creation of Shumlin, Shap and the Democrat party in Vermont. The VT NEA endorses and supports only Democrat party candidates for the Vermont assembly. The majority of the Vermont Republicans, myself included, have vehemently opposed ACT 46 and the closure of local schools. When teachers and para’s lose their jobs because of ACT 46 you should look at your union and yourselves for someone to blame. You voted for this unhappy ending.