Ripton sets Sept. 29 to vote on rejoining ACSD


RIPTON — Ripton School District board members have agreed to warn a Thursday, Sept. 29, referendum that will determine whether the town rejoins the Addison Central School District.

The school board will hold an informational meeting prior to the vote, on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. at Ripton Community House. Australian ballot voting on Sept. 29 will be from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., also at the community house. Ripton school directors were slated to finalize a warning for the vote on Saturday, Aug. 20.

Ripton school directors elected to call for the Sept. 29 vote in the wake of an Aug. 12 opinion issued by the Vermont State Board of Education that “there is an overwhelming risk” Ripton won’t be able to assume full responsibility for educating its students beginning next July — either as a supervisory district or as a supervisory union. The state board based its opinion on a progress report Ripton officials submitted to the panel last month.

The town had declared its intent to establish its own preK-12 public education system — or collaborate with Lincoln on a new “Mountain Supervisory Union” — by July 1, 2023. In January 2021 Ripton launched its effort to withdraw from the ACSD as a means of preserving its local elementary school, which is one of the smallest in the seven-town district. The ACSD board hasn’t announced any formal plans to close Ripton Elementary or any other schools, but officials have discussed the concept of thinning the district’s complement of buildings in view of declining enrollment and rising education costs.

Ripton school board member Molly Witters told the Independent that she and her colleagues believe Ripton residents deserve a chance to go to the polls to again weigh in on the town’s withdrawal effort, given recent developments. And because Ripton had mapped out a July 1, 2023, “go live” date to become an independent K-12 supervisory district, current state rules require the community to hold a vote on possible repatriation with the ACSD before the end of September.

“We believe in the democratic process,” she said. “This whole effort, from the very beginning, has been an exercise in democracy, and it will be to the very end.”

Legislation enacted during the past biennium would make Ripton’s re-entry into the ACSD easier than it would have been under the previous rules. Former rules would have called for, among other things, each of the six other ACSD-member towns to vote to re-admit Ripton. The ACSD serves Ripton (at least through the balance of the 2022-2023 academic year), Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

A no-vote in any of those towns would’ve derailed a repatriation effort by Ripton.

But the new rules provide Ripton with an easier “off-ramp” from the withdrawal process. If a majority of Ripton residents vote to rejoin the ACSD, Ripton is back in.

As previously reported by the Independent, Ripton officials will spend the coming weeks in advance of the Sept. 29 vote trying to negotiate friendly terms for re-entering the ACSD. And at the top of Ripton’s list is a proposed change to the ACSD charter that would prevent the district school board from closing an elementary school unless a majority of the residents of the town in which it’s located vote to do so.

Regardless of whether those negotiations bear fruit, Ripton voters will play a pivotal role on Sept. 29. A majority of voters could vote against rejoining the ACSD, which could place the town in uncharted territory. The town would maintain its independent status, but would not have a state-approved education plan for students. And the town doesn’t at this time have a supervisory union partner willing to provide the central office, special education and transportation services the fledgling independent district would need to function.

State Board of Education Chair Oliver Olsen said Ripton’s case would have to be referred to the Legislature.

Witters said the state board should assign Ripton to an existing supervisory union or create a Ripton/ACSD supervisory union. Olsen has said the state board doesn’t want to force an existing SU to take on Ripton, and ACSD officials have been opposed to adopting an SU format, a throwback to the manner in which Middlebury-area schools were previously governed before the ACSD was created (from the Addison Central Supervisory Union) back in 2016.

John Flowers is at [email protected].

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