Ludlow nixes Mill River merger, Mt. Holly votes yes;
Merger heads back to Act 46 drawing board

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A couple dozen Black River students came out to urge voters to reject the merger included, from left, Greg Eaton, Sara Swartz, Aisy Kelley and Torrie VanGuilder. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Voters in Ludlow today defeated a proposed merger between that town and its U-39 partner Mount Holly with the Mill River Unified Union School District in Clarendon. The vote in Ludlow was 245 for and 527 against the merger out of a total checklist of 1,588 voters according to Ludlow Town Clerk Ulla Cook.

Mount Holly, on the other hand, voted in favor of the merger. But since the proposal included dissolving the union that operates Black River High School, both towns had to vote in favor for it to go forward.

The Mount Holly vote was 391 in favor with 153 opposed. Town Clerk Sue Covalla said that an average turnout (non-presidential election) is in the “300s” out of the towns 1,000 voters.

Brent Karner of Ludlow prepares to vote no on the school merger with Mill River.

As voting took place today, Ludlow resident Brent Karner asked, “How can we not have a school in this town? We need to figure something out, it will take everybody: town manager, select board, school board – everybody – to get to the big ideas we’ll need to keep the school.”

Also in Ludlow, Donna Crossman said she voted no because she wanted to see the school keep going. “I graduated from there myself,” said Crossman. “They’ve done wonderful things and they’ve produced great students.”

Nick Arduini voted to keep BRHS open for the sake of the Ludlow community

Nick Arduini thought that the loss of the high school would “ruin the community. Who’s going to move here if there’s no high school?” he asked.  “Local sports and events bring the community together and that big plus would be lost.”

On the other hand, Ludlow resident Peter Girouard voted yes “because the state is going to close it in a few years anyway. At least we have choice.” Girouard said things might be different if the student population was not declining and the school had better ratings based on test scores.

In Mount Holly, resident Patricia Marx asked, “How can people not want the best school for their children?” as she explained her yes vote. “We owe our children the best education we can give them. Mill River is rated near the top and Black River near the bottom.”

Liz and Adam Karle moved to Mount Holly for the elementary school and hope that Maya will attend Mill River.

“We just moved to Mount Holly from Rutland,” said Liz and Adam Karle who brought their year-old daughter Maya with them to vote. “We wanted more rural surroundings and we knew the elementary school is good. We thought when she gets to high school we would have to make other arrangements and pay for it and then the vote came along. The general opinion of Mill River is that it’s better than Black River.”

“I think it’s a good thing for the kids to merge the schools,” said Gene Jennings of Mount Holly.

The only no voter The Telegraph was able to speak with in a visit to Mount Holly asked not to be identified. “I feel sorry about those people who are going to lose their jobs,” he said in reference to 40 Black River teachers and other staff who will be unemployed if the proposal passes.

Merger work begins again

The defeat of the merger sends the two towns back to the drawing board to look for a proposal that will pass muster under Act 46 and that their voters will approve. A grassroots group calling itself the Black River Area Innovation Network or BRAIN has been looking at several options. Its objective is to keep Ludlow’s high school open – either as a public school or as a private one.

In public meetings, many have expressed concern that if the towns have not found a suitable solution by the deadlines spelled out in Act 46 and H.513 — which passed the legislature this spring — the state Agency of Education will impose a merger on them. This could involve closing Black River and asking Mill River to take in Mount Holly’s middle and high school students and asking either Green Mountain or Springfield to take Ludlow’s.   This could involve asking a school district like Mill River or Green Mountain to take over the Mount Holly and Ludlow schools with the board of that district being able to decide which schools to close.

Others have maintained that the state will be squeamish about this part of the law and will not want to be seen closing local schools. Black River High School board chair Bruce Schmidt has said that if the Mill River merger was defeated, he would urge a new study committee to hang back and not rush into another plan too quickly.

“If any good comes out of a no vote, it may be more people trying to make it better,” said Schmidt at an April information meeting in Ludlow.

UPDATE 8:08 p.m. TUESDAY: Reached for comment on Tuesday night, Meg Powden, superintendent of Two Rivers Supervisory Union, said she doubted there would be a re-vote considering the overwhelming numbers in Ludlow. “We’ll have a carousel meeting with the boards (Ludlow Elementary, Mount Holly and U-39) on Wednesday, June 7 with next steps on the agenda,” said Powden

“People have wanted a new (Act 46 Study) committee,” said Powden, “but we need to ask some questions and see what what paths are available to us. Hopefully we can decide what to do before (Vermont) Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe has to assign the districts to a school district or supervisory union.”

For the time being, Ludlow and Mount Holly will remain in TRSU along with the Green Mountain Unified School District – a Regional Education District – which was formed as part of the Act 46 process. Ludlow and Mount Holly decided they would not join that district.

According to Powden, if an Act 46 merger option is not adopted by the two towns, Holcombe could ask a school district like Mill River, Green Mountain, Windsor Central or Springfield to take them in. But — since only the voters of Ludlow and Mount Holly can dissolve the U-39 union that governs Black River High — both towns would go to the new district.

In a recent information meeting at Ludlow Elementary School, Mill River school district Superintendent Dave Younce told the audience that his school had delayed moving the sixth grade into the high school building pending this merger. “If there is a no vote, then Mill River will move on,” said Younce. Although he left the door open for “one town” to come on board in the future, Younce called this vote “a one-shot deal.”

UPDATE 7:56 p.m. TUESDAY: On Tuesday night, Younce told The Telegraph that considering the numbers, looking at the same concept with the same towns again did not look promising, but that Mill River might still be open to a a merger but only if the union situation between Mount Holly and Ludlow split and Mill River would take Mount Holly.

Going forward, Younce said he was happy to lend whatever insight he has gained personally in the Act 46 process that Mill River went through. Noting that his experience with the board, administration and staff in Ludlow and Mount Holly was pleasant and that everyone was professional and collegial.

Younce said he was not surprised by the outcome considering the sentiments voiced at information meetings in Ludlow but that he did expect the vote to be a bit closer. “There are a lot of unanswered questions over there,” said Younce, “and the problem of costs is not going away — that and the Act 46 laws put them in a bind.”

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  1. Tamara says:

    I am a Mount Holly resident “No” voter. I think a majority of the residents in Mount Holly were voting upon what was best for themselves (solely Mount Holly) and not the whole community, that is, including Ludlow.

    It was a very hard decision for me to personally make, but in the end, I don’t want to see BRHS shut down. I want to see changes and improvements. Hopefully, the vote against the merger will spark initiative and creativity to come up with a balanced solution.