By KATHRYN FLAGG
SUDBURY AND WHITING — Plans for a tri-town school merger in Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury were derailed Monday, after voters in Sudbury defeated a measure 54-44 that would have allocated $7,000 to a planning fund for the potential community school.
Of the three towns, only Sudbury voted against the merger and planning funding — and in fact, Whiting and Leicester voted overwhelmingly in favor of moving forward with the community school.
“The message was quite clear that due to the economic conditions, this was not a time to even spend $7,000 to study the proposal of a joint school merger,” said Cathy Smid, a Sudbury resident and volunteer on the committee investigating the merger.
Whiting voters approved $6,000 for the planning effort Monday night 41-8, and last week voters in Leicester unanimously approved a $12,000 contribution to the fund.
Monday’s nearly two-hour meeting at the Sudbury Town Meeting House, on the other hand, was marked by heated debate.
“There were many people who came to the meeting who had already made up their minds,” said Sudbury school board Chair Stephen Roberts.
Roberts said that he tried to make clear at Monday’s meeting that this month’s vote would not definitively determine whether or not the three towns would build the proposed community school. Monday’s votes were the first in a potential three-vote process. Had all three towns agree to move forward with the merger, residents would have participated in a governance vote this winter to establish a joint school district.
Finally, all three towns would have been asked to approve large bond votes for the new school in a year’s time.
Still, Roberts said, even the $7,000 planning fund — which would have broken down to around $21 per household for families living in a $150,000 house — combined with the prospect of new construction down the line dissuaded many voters from giving their approval.
“Obviously, in the economic times we’re in right now, it’s not a really attractive idea to go out and incur a lot of debt,” Roberts said.
Roberts said that Sudbury voters also discussed other options for tackling dwindling enrollment and rising education costs in the coming years — concerns that drove Sudbury voters last year to support a plan to form a joint school district with Whiting. (The proposal failed last November when the two towns split the decision: Sudbury voters approved the plan, 53-39, and Whiting said no, 47-26.)
A group of residents at the meeting, Roberts said, seemed to think that tuitioning students to Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon might be a solution — though Roberts said that a meeting with Neshobe’s school board indicated that the cost of tuitioning students might not be significantly lower than those associated with keeping the town’s school open.
Roberts said that the three school boards discussing a merger were charged with finding answers to the questions many residents had about a potential community school, but that funding was necessary to find those answers. Without that funding, he said that the school will keep the status quo for now.
“I think people are very insecure right now,” Roberts said. “I think that they felt that this was not a good time to (build a new school). Who knows? They might be right.”
TWO TOWNS SUPPORT
Supporters of the tri-town school have been temporarily left in the lurch, said Cady White, a Whiting resident who has worked on the proposed plan. Leicester’s funding, White said, was approved with a clause that made the planning money contingent upon votes in Whiting and Sudbury.
Volunteers have scheduled another community meeting for Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent’s office.
“We’re going to go back and sit down and discuss our options,” White said.
White said that Whiting voters had a well-rounded discussion of the proposal at their meeting, and that many residents brought valid questions to the table about the proposed merger. In the end, she said, Whiting residents at Monday night’s meetings largely supported taking the next step down the planning road.
“I was overwhelmed with the support that the town of Whiting had given us to be able to move forward in this project,” she said. “The townspeople were great.”
She said she was disappointed that Sudbury voters did not come to a similar conclusion.
“Part of me, I guess, was a little disappointed that they wouldn’t allow us to at least look into this,” she said. “We couldn’t give them all of the answers that everyone wants, without this planning money.”
But proponents of the community school, who have been investigating a potential merger for around a year, aren’t throwing in the towel quite yet.
“In terms of Leicester’s opinion, we’re going to keep on moving forward with the momentum that we’ve got,” said Leicester school board member Hannah Sessions. “It’s not too much of a setback, but it certainly changes our plan.”
White was similarly stoic.
“We keep our chin up,” she said.