Ludlow, Mt. Holly schools close door on RED; 3 options remain

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Thursday night, Feb. 9, the Act 46 sub-committee for Mount Holly and Ludlow voted unanimously to tell the four towns working to form a Regional Education District that they would not participate in that effort – even as a backup in case other options don’t work out. In closing the door, members and attendees cited the “unfairness” of those towns in moving toward a deadline and questioned their commitment to greater educational opportunities for their students.

In recent weeks, representatives of the towns of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester have been working on an agreement that they can send to the March 14 meeting of the Vermont State Board of Education for review and approval before it can go before the voters of the four towns in April. The overarching goal of the RED towns is to finish by June 30 and preserve several funding enhancements and protections against tax penalties.

At the same time, representatives of Mount Holly and Ludlow have been looking at four options including:

  • a merger with Mill River High School in North Clarenden,
  • forming a pre-K through 12 district to join with the Quarry Valley group of similar districts including Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland, which is still being formed,
  • operating elementary schools and opting for secondary school choice.

At the Jan. 25 Mount Holly/Ludlow sub-committee meeting, member Bruce Schmidt recommended keeping open the option of joining the RED as backup, and the panel agreed. While one of the main objections to a regional middle school/ high school at Green Mountain Union High was the closure of Black River High, three of the four options the Mount Holly/Ludlow group decided to pursue would require shuttering the Ludlow school.

When the RED group met in Andover on Jan. 31, Schmidt, on behalf of the Mount Holly/Ludlow panel, proposed several conditions for his group to join the RED, but only as a fall-back position. RED sub-committee chair Alison DesLauriers told Schmidt that the conditions seemed acceptable, but that a merger would require an agreement on closing BRHS. Consultant Steve Dale stepped in, however, and said that to be part of the plan, Mount Holly/Ludlow would have to be part of the sub-committee.

At the same meeting, Mount Holly Principal Craig Hutt-Vater told the RED sub-committee that there was no animosity toward them from the Mount Holly and Ludlow representatives. But the Feb. 9 meeting put that assertion to the test when members discussed aspects of the four options on the table, but repeatedly returned to the choice between sending students to Mill River HS and GMUHS. The night before, several members of the sub-committee along with Two Rivers Superintendent Meg Powden had met privately with David Younce, superintendent of the Mill River schools, and said they were very impressed with the presentation.

Schmidt was also impressed with the presentation, noting that his board thought enough of Younce to offer him a five-year contract. But Schmidt also repeatedly said that unless the sub-committee got on board with the RED, Black River teachers would lose any advantage from the seniority they might have under the single contract in any staff realignment.

Would Mill River allow Black River to stay open?

Members also had different takes on whether Mill River would allow Black River to stay open.

“Mill River is open to some form of keeping Black River open,” said Hutt Vater. “Chester’s like ‘no,’ huh.”

“They are not going to spend any money to keep Black River open,” Schmidt replied. Younce “made it very clear that they would not be interested in anything where Black River would be a school. Those towns have to vote to let us in … they’re going to be looking at their tax rates.”

“And if it’s going to raise their taxes, why would they want us? asked Ludlow representative Angi Benson-Ciufo.

Several Green Mountain students who have regularly attended the Act 46 meetings renewed their call for a plan that would keep Black River open as part of a single district that would include the four RED towns. They told the sub-committee that their plan had been looked at and while it saved $750,000 they had not included the cost of operating the Ludlow building which is about $350,000. They said they thought that the four towns forming a RED had acted too quickly and that there was still time to go back to their plan.

Ludlow representative (and Cavendish Principal) George Thomson made note that while a small group of Green Mountain students attended most meetings to advocate keeping BRHS open, Black River students don’t attend. Earlier, Thomson had said that Green Mountain is a fine school and that he is proud of the Cavendish students who go there, but that he sees more opportunities for Ludlow students at Mill River. In a phone interview on Monday, Thomson said that a larger number of students could lead to greater educational opportunities and that Mill River is already more populous than Green Mountain.

Throughout the meeting, frustration with the process was showing in the discussions. Some members called for a new, “unbiased” attorney while another expressed distrust for consultant Steve Dale.

Gone was the sentiment that sub-committee members understood the motivations of their RED counterparts as several, including those in the audience, said they doubted the RED sub-committee members’ commitment to improving educational opportunities for students.

“Can we put in a dissenting opinion in (the final report) to say that we think they are not meeting the obligations of the act?” asked Benson-Ciufo, “Where are the new student opportunities?”

The sense of a looming deadline also grated on members. “I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve worked on this for 16 months and we’re feeling the pressure to make a decision and we can’t get any more time,” said Benson-Ciufo.

“We have to make a decision on what we are going to tell the RED sub-committee on Monday,” said Schmidt.

“We’re going to tell them nothing,” said Benson-Ciufo

“Silence is a direction,” Schmidt replied.

After that, Mariel Meringolo’s motion to tell the RED sub-committee that Ludlow and Mount Holly would not participate in its plan was approved unanimously.

“We accomplished something,” exclaimed Thomson.

Sub-committee chair Bob Herbst said he would attend the Feb. 13 meeting of the RED sub-committee to give them the decision.

On Monday, Schmidt explained his frustration. “There’s part of me that wants to blame someone else. Green Mountain. The state of Vermont,” said Schmidt. “But this is life and as hard as we want to keep our school, there are reasons why we just can’t get kids into our school.”

Also on Monday, Study Committee chair Sebastian Frank expanded on the problem. “Ludlow is a tourist town with a lot of the property in the hands of second homeowners and that’s not good for the number of students,” said Frank. “And diatribes against Chester are partly expressions of frustration with the law, the geography and with budget differences.”

A video recording of the meeting made by LPCTV is available for streaming.

The reporter of this article was unable to attend the meeting in person but watched the 2 hour and 45 minute recording made by LPC-TV twice and read the detailed, 5,000 word minutes of the meeting several times.

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