NEWS ANALYSIS: How an Act 46 merger became a separation

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Bob Herbst tells the RED sub-committee Ludlow and Mount Holly won’t join in the new district. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

In two weeks, the voters of Ludlow and Mount Holly will go to the polls to decide whether to close Black River High School and become part of the Mill River Unified Union School District in Clarendon. This was the direction chosen by representatives of those towns after they rejected any possibility of joining the Regional Education District — RED — that was approved on May 2 by the voters of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester.

The irony is that the deal-breakers for the Black River schools in joining merger of the communities in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union during the 18 month Act 46 study process are now major components of the Mill River merger proposal.

Representatives of those four towns concluded last year that the tax increases needed from their voters just to keep BRHS open and staffed in a union-wide merger would not fly at the ballot box. Estimates from the school budget office put the tax hike between 17 cents and 23 cents per $100, or $340 to $460 annually for a $200,000 property. As a deadline in the law neared, they decided to form the RED.

For their part, Ludlow and Mount Holly continued to work on finding a solution that would keep Black River High open. But within a few weeks, three of the four options they had identified involved closing the high school. One of those options was the merger with Mill River, which had made it clear it did not want the BRHS building.

Travel, transportation and teachers

Closing Black River was the biggest of Ludlow’s sticking points in the 18-month Act 46 process, but it wasn’t the only one. When Green Mountain was suggested as the regional middle/high school, many said 13.9 miles was too far to travel for Ludlow students.  Ludlow and Mount Holly parents and board members said that driving through the Cavendish Gorge in winter was also a concern, not only for buses, but also for young drivers.

On May 30, voters will decide if students will travel 20.7 miles over the mountain from Ludlow to Mill River, in Clarendon, through the “Mount Holly flats,” where weather is often treacherous in winter.

Ludlow Act 46 committee member Bruce Schmidt, center, asks if the RED sub-committee would be amenable to several changes if the Ludlow schools were to join the new district. ‘We’re in a tough spot,’ said Schmidt.

In late January, at a RED study committee meeting in Andover, Ludlow committee member Bruce Schmidt asked that, if Ludlow were to join the RED, could it have enhanced transportation so Ludlow students would have enough bus options to participate in extracurricular activities like sports, music and drama. The subcommittee said it would make that part of the the articles of agreement.

But no such assurances have been made in the Mill River deal, which states in the articles of agreement that “the board will determine … the transportation services to be provided to students.”

Schmidt had also asked that some portion of sports, meetings and cultural events be held at facilities in Ludlow. Again the RED subcommittee agreed that it could also be part of an agreement. However, the proposed Mill River merger agreement is silent on this issue, although it has been said that an inducement to merge for the Mill River towns would be Ludlow’s athletic fields, which have lights.

Finally, whenever the public commented during meetings, Ludlow residents had high praise for the faculty of Black River, giving them credit for the school’s successes and good educational outcomes. If Ludlow had come on board with Green Mountain, the seniority rights of the high school faculty could have been preserved and a fair number of those teachers would have been able to claim jobs in the new district.

At this point, those rights are lost. According to Chris Leopold, the lawyer representing Two Rivers Supervisory Union in the Mill River merger, the teachers in the two elementary school districts “have protections under the articles of agreement and statute.” But those teachers from Black River are not protected, he said.  Mill River has offered to interview BRHS teachers.

Difficult decisions

A crowd of about 70 attend one of several TRSU Act 46 Study Committee meetings held in Ludlow.

These decisions – especially closing the high school – have been deeply emotional and very difficult. At more than one meeting, the decision-making process was described in terms of the stages of grief. At the same time, many have said that the sports rivalry between Green Mountain and Black River played a large part in Ludlow’s decision to head north,  and that’s probably true.

A parent at one meeting was heard exclaiming that his child would “never be a (GMUHS) Chieftain,” while at another meeting an audience member shouted “don’t kill the (BRHS) Presidents.”

And there was also the very human reaction known as shooting the messenger, referring to the ill will one feels toward someone who brings bad news. In this case, Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester representatives spent more than a year exploring ways to merge all of the towns in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, but could not reconcile the tax increases required of  their towns to keep the Black River building open and staffed. Act 46 study meetings became increasingly testy over the winter with RED towns – especially Chester – being accused of rushing the process, not focusing enough on educational opportunities and caring too much about tax rates.

Mill River Superintendent David Younce takes questions at an April 24 information meeting in Ludlow

“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 Act 46 Study Committee chair Sebastian Frank in an interview with The Telegraph in mid-February. “And diatribes against Chester are partly expressions of frustration with the law, the geography and with budget differences.”

Some of this ire spilled over into the Ludlow/Mount Holly study meetings with one merger proponent saying, “Chester made it very clear they don’t want us even though we’ve been funding them for years.” Members of the subcommittee expressed distrust of the Act 46 consultant Steve Dale and suggested getting an “unbiased” attorney rather than Leopold. At some points, committee members even took some sharp verbal shots at each other.

In the end, the “wooing” of the sub-committee by Mill River Superintendent David Younce and his board won the day and convinced the merger committee to recommend the north-facing proposal.

BRHS board chair Bruce Schmidt told the April 24 public meeting that if the vote is no, they should not jump to a solution but take a fresh look at the options.

So now there’s an active ‘yes’ group meeting in Mount Holly and a similar ‘no’ group in Ludlow. But public meetings are attended by self-selecting groups of people who are passionate enough about the subject to come out. And there have been fewer than 40 people at most meetings, with many of those being employees of the school districts involved, so it’s difficult to predict which way the vote will go.

If Ludlow and Mount Holly approve the merger, the voters of the Mill River District will have to agree to it in an August vote. After that, any town wishing to withdraw from that district would have to get the approval of all the towns in the district.

If either or both towns reject the merger, they would go back to the drawing board to find another solution. Merger proponents argue that a ‘no’ vote will leave the towns open to losses of things like small school grants and other incentives. Merger opponents are asking the towns to take another look. They point to a bill to extend deadlines and flesh out the procedures for proposing alternative governance structures that is going to Gov. Phil  Scott for his signature.

At an April 24 public meeting, Schmidt said that if the merger is rejected by Ludlow, he would counsel the Black River High School board to take a step back, don’t rush toward the next solution and take a fresh look at the options.

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