More speak against merger at Ludlow meeting

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Ludlow Elementary board chair Lisa Schmidt asks for civility in the discussion. Photos by Shawn Cunningha

A crowd of nearly 80 people gathered in President’s Hall at the Ludlow Elementary School on a warm sunny evening last Tuesday to hear a presentation and ask questions about the proposed merger of the Ludlow and Mount Holly schools into the Mill River Unified Union School District.

After a contentious information meeting at Mount Holly the previous week, Ludlow Elementary School Board chair Lisa Schmidt called for civility noting, “We are a community, we are all in this together.” Moderator Martin Nitka echoed Schmidt’s concern calling today’s vote “… the most important vote in Ludlow in 50 years.”

TRSU Superintendent Meg Powden presents the case for merger.

In making the presentation for the merger, Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Meg Powden told the crowd that dedicated teachers and administrators work at the schools involved in the merger. “Please share your opinions without tearing down our schools,” asked Powden.

Powden explained the process that led from Act 46 merger talks to the formation of a Regional Education District by Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester to the negotiation with Mill River to merge.

Mill River Superintendent Dave Younce answers questions about the plan

Mill River Superintendent Dave Younce was called on several times to explain how his district operates and what Ludlow students could expect there. Younce called Mill River a “micro high school” by national standards while Black River is even smaller. According to Younce, the merger would create a “600ish” student high school which he characterized as a “very good number in Vermont.”

“Black River kids coming would be great for Mill River,” said Younce.

Black River High School board member Dan Buckley noted that when a single high school at Green Mountain was proposed, Mount Holly representatives objected to the distance their children would have to be bused, but under the proposal Ludlow students would travel farther to Mill River.

BRHS board member Dan Buckley asks why the long commute to is OK for Ludlow students but not for Mount Holly students

“Why is that OK?” asked Buckley.

Powden said that the travel had not been raised as an obstacle by Ludlow the way it was by Mount Holly. She also noted that she had ridden one hour each way to school.

Zoe Trimboli said that Black River is “an excellent school with excellent teachers.”

“Kids who are on free lunch are the ones who will be hurt,” said Trimboli, “kids who don’t get overlooked at Black River, but will at a D(ivision) 2 school. Black River teachers are a support system for poorer kids.” Trimboli said the merger would be “taking away their best chance.”

Saying that parents have to make sacrifices for their kids, Liz Crowley said her family had taken a second home so that her daughter could attend Burr & Burton Academy in Manchester.

Melanie Kinney expressed her concern about high school students who might be running late driving through Mount Holly in the winter, but she also thought that the merger would be a huge loss for the community. “Black River High School is a piece of history that anchors the town,” said Kinney. “I don’t want to see the town turn into nothing but a tourist town.”

One audience member asked Powden what a ‘no’ vote would look like.

Powden said that the three schools would continue to operate as they are today and that their boards would have to decide on the next steps. She noted that the schools will need to become part of a larger district and that the Secretary of the Agency of Education is obliged by law to submit a plan on merging districts that have not found partners.

Moderator Martin Nitka called on the crowd to remain silent, but many applauded those speaking against the merger.

Schmidt noted that a bill – H.513 – will extend deadlines for merger plans and stretch the parameters for acceptable “alternative models.”

“This just kicks the can down the road by ‘x’ amount of time,” said Mount Holly Board chair Dave Venter, referring to a no vote. “Mount Holly doesn’t want to close Black River, but we do want to dissolve U-39 to go with Mill River.”

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.”

One BRHS alum asked what would happen to the 40 high school employees if the merger passed. Powden said they would “lose their positions.” But, she added, Mill River would need to hire 11 employees and would interview Black River employees, but that they had no seniority claims for positions.

Jean Burns said that education of the children should be the No. 1 priority, noting that she had attended a regional high school that gave her great educational opportunities including five advanced placement courses. Burns credited her larger school education in getting a “full ride to law school.”

While Nitka asked that the crowd refrain from cheering or jeering, the audience could not help itself, applauding after many of the speakers. The volume of applause made it clear that that evening’s audience was against the merger.

The vote on the merger will be held in Tuesday, May 30 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Ludlow voters may cast a ballot at Ludlow Town Hall, 37 Depot St. Mount Holly residents may vote at Mount Holly Town Hall, 50 School St.

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  1. Bruce Farr says:

    Great reporting! Thanks for the detail and the timeliness!