Education News

ANWSD, Mt. Abe merger rejected by nine towns

A FERRISBURGH VOTER carries out his civic duty at the Ferrisburgh town offices this past Tuesday as a proposed school merger encouraged high turnout from towns in the ANWSU and MAUSD districts. The merger proposal was soundly defeated. Independent photo/Steve James

ADDISON COUNTY — Voters in the nine towns making up the Addison Northwest and Mount Abraham Unified school districts on Tuesday voted 4,282-1,886 to oppose the merger of the two entities as a way to combat declining enrollment and rising overhead costs.

ANWSD serves the towns of Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Waltham, Panton and Addison. Voters in that district voted against the merger referendum 2,001-771.

MAUSD is made up of Bristol, Starksboro, New Haven and Monkton. Voters in those towns rejected the merger proposal, 2,281-1,115.

Martha DeGraaff, co-chair of the Merger Study Committee, said despite the results she is proud of the committee’s work and was pleased with the large turnout for Tuesday’s vote.

“I’m really happy that so many people did their due diligence and their homework and felt they had enough passion to go out and vote. It really shows how strongly people feel about our local schools,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud of and stand by the work that the merger study group did. I think it was very important, and I’m proud of everything, of every aspect.”

The “No” vote brings an end to over 18 months of work by the study committee, which was tasked last year with exploring whether a merger would benefit both districts and help address their common challenges.

As a result of their research, the committee voted in June to recommend a merger, writing in their final report that they believed a merged district would “enhance educational opportunities, provide greater equity for students, and increase financial and educational stability in our region.”

Despite their optimistic findings, the committee’s drafted articles of agreement sparked concerns from many community members, particularly regarding how potential school closures and consolidations would be handled in a merged district.

Some took issue with the article surrounding the closure of local schools, which specified that after the first four years of operation, a school in the merged district could be closed with approval from two-thirds of the school board and two-thirds of voters in the entire district.

Other community members expressed confusion and concern over the potential physical consolidation of the districts’ middle and high schools, although that was not asked for in the merger article, but rather left for a future board that would govern a merged district to decide. Still, before Tuesday’s voting, residents in the districts expressed worry that a merged district would lead to the consolidation of the middle and high schools, possibly in separate locations.

It appears those concerns held weight amongst voters in the two school districts, as 69.4% of voters in the districts opposed the merger on Tuesday.

Nancy Cornell, a member of the Starksboro Save Our Schools committee that spearheaded a widespread Stop the Merger campaign, said she and committee members were pleased with Tuesday’s results.

“The SOS committee is grateful that so many voters turned out to vote and agree that this is not the time to endorse a merger between our two districts. We certainly want to express our respect to the committee and those who support the merger. While we may disagree on solutions, we do agree that there are problems facing both of our districts that are difficult to solve,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview with the Independent.

Cornell also said she is optimistic about the districts’ ability to address ongoing challenges in other ways.

“We’re hopeful that our communities can work together within our towns to find ways to control costs and expand learning opportunities in our districts and increase enrollment by attracting young families to our community,” she said.

DeGraaf said she believes the work of the merger committee, which was officially terminated once Tuesday’s vote took place, will hopefully remain useful for the districts in the future and inspire further collaboration when possible as school officials in both districts continue to navigate fiscal and educational challenges.

“Hopefully the community will continue to encourage the school boards to have a merger thought in their head. The work that (the merger group) did will probably be used for a long time,” she said. “(Potential collaboration) has been on our minds the entire time we’ve been working. Unfortunately, that wasn’t our charge, and we have a lot of restrictions with teachers’ contracts and regulations put forth by the state that prevent the collaboration the public has said they wanted to see.”

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