Ludlow-Mt. Holly Act 46 subcommittee explores options without GMUHS

By Shawn Cunningham
©2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

As they negotiated the fate of their beloved Black River High School, the crowd at Ludlow Elementary on Tuesday night seemed to be navigating the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Acting as sub-committee chairman, Bob Herbst says that four towns were to study, not form a RED. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

A week earlier, after more than a year of fact finding and negotiation, four of seven communities in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union decided to strike out on their own to see if they could form a regional education district or RED. That left Ludlow and Mount Holly to chart their own courses. (Plymouth is looking to join another district.) But Mount Holly’s desire to get out of U-39 and join Mill River rather than sending children to Black River High School made the work tense.

The hastily called meeting – without consultant Steve Dale or LPC-TV in attendance – started off with a recap of the situation by Superintendent Meg Powden, which was challenged by acting sub-committee chair Bob Herbst who noted that the four towns were only to “study, not form” a RED.

This launched a lengthy discussion of variations on Scenario C, which would form a single new high school with two campuses. It was an option that had already been examined at length at the same meeting in which Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester had proposed to chart a separate course.

Study Committee chair Sebastian Frank, center, asks for analysis of the effect of removing Mt. Holly students from Black River High School.

Several people called for more number-crunching to find greater savings for the two campus idea to be more palatable to the RED towns or perhaps to another district. Committee member George Thomson noted that the $400,000 in savings already looked at in Scenario C only moved the tax rate a few cents. “I don’t think we can find enough savings,” said Thompson.

Study Committee chair Sebastian Frank asked for analysis to see if moving Mount Holly students out of Black River could help it become a specialized campus under Scenario C.

“I’m not sure why we are spending time on this,” Powden interjected but the discussion of the scenario continued.

Green Mountain student Lexi White told the meeting that the students of Green Mountain did not want to lose Black River and proposed a variant called Student Voice C. The plan envisions a Grade 9-12 Ludlow campus that would be an “International Business and Humanity Academy” offering 50 new classes. Mount Holly would become part of Mill River, but could send choice students to the Ludlow campus.

At times frustration bubbled up as when Ludlow Elementary board chair Lisa Schmidt questioned the fairness of the process asking if consultant Dale’s absence meant that he would only be working with “the other side.”

“Do we get any support?” asked Schmidt. Powden told her that Dale’s contract was limited and in particular involved assisting in writing articles of agreement which is what the other sub-committee is expecting to do.

Saying that the best option is to stay together and join Mill River, Jake Robichaud, who grew up in Mount Holly and lives in Ludlow, said “Chester made it very clear they don’t want us even though we’ve been funding them for years.”

Study Committee member Bruce Schmidt advocates for keeping the option of joining the RED open.

Committee members Bruce Schmidt and Bob Herbst objected to that characterization saying they hold no ill will toward those who voted to pursue the RED and if the tables were turned they would probably have done the same.

Sub-committee alternate Mariel Meringolo said that she would prefer school choice to having her child be forced to go to Green Mountain, while sub-committee alternate Jennifer Shepard and Black River teacher John Bannon were concerned that the loss of the high school would spell the end of Ludlow as a community.

Shepard said that Ludlow will “officially be a tourist town,” while Bannon suggested putting signs along the road in front of the school asking: “Why does the state of Vermont want to kill our community?”

As the focus of the meeting turned away from Scenario C, the discussion of other possibilities ranged from having an elementary school but offering choice for high school instead of operating one; to finding a school system (like Mill River) that would allow Black River to remain open; to throwing in with the standalone PreK-12 districts of West Rutland, Proctor and Poultney if their merger is approved in March.

And throughout the meeting, U-39 member Bruce Schmidt kept coming back to the strategy of keeping the door open to join the RED at a later date while the committee looks for another option.

There was also a discussion of what bargaining chips Ludlow has. This included more students to make the proposed RED more viable and the possibility of having ski and hockey programs for Mill River.

In the end, the sub-committee accepted four options to pursue, asking someone to look into each and report back. And it was telling that while those assembled still wanted to keep Black River High School open, three of the four options would involve closing it. The four options are:

  • School Choice – Mariel Meringolo
  • Join Mill River – Sebastian Frank
  • PreK-12 with West Rutland etc. – Meg Powden
  • Keep open the option of joining the RED – Bruce Schmidt

The next meeting of the sub-committee is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7 at Mount Holly Elementary, 150 School St. in Mount Holly. The first sub-committee meeting of those towns looking to form a RED will take place at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31 at the Andover Town Hall, 953 Weston-Andover Road.

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