1966: School districts part ways

UNION DISTRICT 3 (Middlebury-area) school board chair Carl Schmidt addresses the Vermont State Board of Education during a June 1966 meeting in New Haven.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in a series about the growing pains of Addison County schools in 1965-66 and the Vermont Commissioner of Education’s ambitious plan to address them. Unless otherwise noted, quoted material is reproduced from the original Addison Independent articles and editorials of the time. 

ADDISON COUNTY — In April 1966 Bristol High School Principal Neal Hoadley led the Vermont State Board of Education on a tour of his worn-out, overcrowded school.

Hoadley pointed out the lab, which had been converted from a home economics room after the “homemaking department” was moved across the street to the Advent Church. He showed them the inadequate teachers’ planning space, which had once been the principal’s lounge. He walked them through the limited gym facilities, which made physical education programming impossible. And he noted the warped floors, the inadequate lighting and the lack of hallways, which made it necessary for students to pass through classrooms to get to other classrooms.

These were not new issues. Two years before, a Bristol school board study committee had recommended building a union high school to serve the towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.

But the plan was rejected by Starksboro voters in 1965. Soon after, New Haven pulled out. Then the Board of Education refused to approve a union of Bristol, Lincoln and Monkton, because it was too small.

In February 1966 Bristol residents thought their prayers for a new school had been answered when the “Harris Report,” an independent study of Addison County schools, validated their plans to form, and build for, a five-town union.

The “Harris Report” envisioned high schools in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes — as well as a new county-wide education center for grades 10-12 in New Haven. Students attending the existing high schools in New Haven and Shoreham would be consolidated into Bristol and Middlebury, respectively.

For the most part, Addison County school officials supported this idea.

A month later, however, Commissioner of Education Richard Gibboney set aside the “Harris Report,” which he had commissioned, and pitched his own idea: building a high school in New Haven to serve the whole county. Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes would have middle schools instead of high schools.

Addison County school officials hated this idea — they wanted immediate action, not more planning and debate.

Faced with overwhelming resistance, Gibboney told the county’s four superintendents to refine his plan, or come up with a one-school plan of their own.


The superintendents released their own plan in May of 1966. It called for:

•  a unified K-14 school district with one superintendent and one school board.

•  a single secondary school, including vocational center, for grades 10-12 or 11-12.

•  the option of extending vocational study to grades 13-14.

•  middle schools in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes, serving grades up to 9 or 10.

•  closing New Haven’s Beeman Academy in 1967 and Shoreham High School in 1968.

The superintendents also asked for:

•  state funding to help with temporary classroom space in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes.

•  temporary waivers of the state’s minimum education standards, which were scheduled to take effect in 1967.

This plan wasn’t substantially different from Gibboney’s but it now carried the names of local superintendents, who said it would “provide the best educational opportunities for all the young people of the county area within reasonable financial limitations. We strongly believe that anything less than the county area approach will result in significantly less quality, significantly higher costs, or both.”

The superintendents asked local school boards to support their idea and to establish a planning commission to help make it a reality.


A majority of the county’s school boards panned the idea.

Bristol School Board Vice Chair Mrs. Andrew Johnson wasn’t interested in any more “reports from professionals,” which didn’t “represent the feeling of the people.”

Vergennes already had a perfectly good high school, officials there said, and the central school idea was a waste of money their taxpayers would never support.

The plan was derided by the Independent, which in a May 20 editorial called the superintendents “obedient servants of the State Board of Education.”

(The editorial and the rest of the paper’s coverage prompted sharp criticism from at least one reader. See story on this page.)

The Middlebury Union High School board, on the other hand, voted to endorse the plan, 20-2.

“I think the board feels that this won’t be the last school in Addison County,” said board chair Carl Schmidt. “But it’s a step to improve the education situation and gives the best answer now at the high school level.”

Schmidt and fellow board member Benjamin Wissler urged an all-out effort to overcome opposition in Bristol and Vergennes, but their efforts got off to a bad start.

Schmidt complained about the “hard attitude” of the neighboring school boards.

“How long do we have to be cooperative and get slapped in the face?” he said. “What advance can we make if they don’t want to go along?”

Wissler suggested Bristol and Vergennes be given “a fair chance to be convinced,” but added that “if school boards wage a stubborn fight for local autonomy, no progress will result.”

In the following days a team of Middlebury-area officials visited Bristol with the hope of changing hearts and minds there.

But they didn’t have much time. Representatives from 19 Addison County school boards planned to meet and vote on the matter at the end of the month.


“I’m not intrigued by the problem of transportation or other details,” Wissler said at the May 31 county-wide meeting. “Now is the time to look at (the big issues) and find the basis for the best education. The details will be minor. If we can’t look at the broad picture now, then MUHS will have to go it alone. Then someday we’ll say, ‘We missed the boat.’”

Arlington Hazen of the New Haven board suggested that since “Harris is from New York and Gibboney is from Pennsylvania” that perhaps neither was able to “sound the problem.” The superintendents’ report, on the other hand, was “as close as you can get to the grass roots.”

Johnson informed the gathering that Bristol was planning to build a new school for grades 7-12, regardless of what the State Board of Education had to say about the matter, but the Bristol school board would be willing to participate in a county-wide commission to make future recommendations.

Recommendations for what? wondered MUHS board member William Collins. If Bristol got a union high school now it would rule out a future central high school, he said.

But Bristol couldn’t sit around for three or four years, waiting for something to happen in Addison County, said Addison Northeast Superintendent Ernest Codding.

“Our situation is critical,” he said. “We already are facing the prospect of dividing the auditorium into classrooms. All we ask is an opportunity to take care of our problems immediately.”

But conversations among the three largest county districts eventually devolved into accusations and retorts, according to the Independent’s June 3 coverage. School board members couldn’t even agree on a motion to vote on.

Eventually a straw poll was taken, but only after the Bristol and Vergennes contingents were made to pledge that “we’re not against anything.”

Then they voted against the superintendents’ plan.

In the end, representatives from 19 county school boards voted 40-16 in favor of having three union high schools — in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes.

“It is believed the one-school plan is definitely dead,” the Independent reported on June 10.


A week later, Gibboney said he was “pessimistic” about the possibility of a central education center for Addison County, but he still thought it was the best plan in the long run, a far better alternative to three union high schools.

He also believed the state had a unique role to play in school reorganization.

“The state perspective is necessary to help ensure a broadly based consideration of regional school problems,” Gibboney told the Independent. “It should not necessarily reflect local opinion back to school districts.”

That said, the commissioner pledged to respect the vote of the Addison County school boards.

At least the controversy got more people involved, he said.

“Public understanding has increased. Disagreement exists, to be sure, but it exists at a much higher level. We are no longer disagreeing about basic facts, but rather about possible solutions.”

The central school proposal “didn’t hurt,” the Independent acknowledged in subsequent editorials. It just wasn’t “that urgent, even though it is a good idea.”

In any event, the plan was dead, and the county educational structure, Gibboney believed, was irrevocably set for years to come.

For the most part, he turned out to be right.

Tune in next week to find out why.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

Share this story:

More News

MREMS seeks big change in funding

Middlebury Regional Emergency Medical Services wants to eliminate its annual Town Meeting … (read more)


College student dies in dorm, police say no foul play

Middlebury police are investigating the death of a Middlebury College junior and say the p … (read more)

Homepage Featured News

City centenarian talks of well-lived life

Vergennes resident Margaret Clifford offers nearly a century of recollections, from losing … (read more)

Share this story: