A year ago, after the town of Ripton secured its independence from the Addison Central School District, proponents of local educational control saw it as a victory.
After a sustained campaign for independence, Ripton residents, concerned for the future of their small elementary school, voted resoundingly to withdraw from the district; neighboring towns also voted to allow the small town to go its own way.
But a year later, that bid appears more like a cautionary tale. Unable to obtain school services elsewhere, Ripton administrators are considering rejoining the district. And now, state officials and lawmakers are trying to make sure another departure like Ripton’s doesn’t happen again.
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“We don’t want another Ripton,” said Oliver Olsen, chair of the State Board of Education. “But without those structural guardrails to make sure that people are going through this in a really thoughtful manner, things can go off the rails pretty quickly.”
Vermont House members are considering over 100 pages of amendments to clean up Act 46, the controversial law that merged neighboring school districts, sometimes against the will of residents.
Many of the amendments simply clarify the language of the law — “putting things in a more organized fashion,” said Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, chair of the House Education Committee.
But some proposals aim to require school administrators to complete a more thorough analysis before leaving their district — a change that, officials say, would prevent schools from crashing out of merged districts with no support system.
And they would give the State Board of Education, a body within the Agency of Education whose members are appointed by the governor, much broader power to block secessions.
In Ripton’s case, the problem is supervisory services: transportation, special education, administration.
For small districts across Vermont, those services are usually provided by supervisory unions, which function somewhat like overarching mega-districts.
As Ripton residents pushed to leave the Addison Central School District, many expected that their school could simply join a neighboring supervisory union. But school administrators found that none of the neighboring supervisory unions wanted them.
And instead of assigning the town to another supervisory union, as Ripton administrators hoped, the Vermont State Board of Education had a different plan. Last month, the board voted unanimously to make Ripton its own supervisory district — meaning that the town would bear the cost of securing those services for the tiny, roughly 50-student school.
That decision, which will take effect in 2023, was unwelcome news for Ripton.
“It is far from certain that the path you may put us on will be successful,” Steve Cash, the chair of the Ripton School Board, told the State Board of Education last month. “We were under the impression that our town was too small to become its own (supervisory district).”
In an interview, Cash said he was still unsure what would become of Ripton. “It’s kind of like taking a cake out of the oven half-baked,” he said.
But for state officials, that uncertainty underscored the importance of amending the law. Now, lawmakers are considering a slate of proposed changes in the withdrawal process.
One proposed bill, introduced by Rep. Charles Shaw, R-Pittsford, would require school districts considering secession to draft a “withdrawal plan” and present it to voters ahead of a vote.
Another proposal, put forth by the State Board of Education, would go even further.
Towns would be required to create a “withdrawal study committee” to examine the pros and cons of leaving their school district. After considering those questions, the study committee would take a vote on whether to continue the withdrawal process.
If a majority voted “yes,” the committee then would draft a written report on the rationale and plans for a withdrawal, including proposals for where the schools could receive supervisory services.
The State Board of Education then would have the power to approve the plan, or, if it determined that the bid was “not in the best interests of the state, the region, the students, and the school districts,” to deny it.
That change — essentially giving the board the ability to veto a petition for independence even before town residents voted on it — would be a dramatic shift. Under current law, the board can essentially only rubber-stamp bids for independence after residents have already voted to approve a withdrawal.
The amendments are still in the early stages, and it’s far from certain that they will actually become law.
Herb Olsen, a resident of Starksboro, where residents are considering making their own bid for school independence, said the proposed legislation “makes the entire process far more time-consuming, uncertain, and susceptible to arbitrary decision-making.”
Lawmakers also will have to decide whether the new requirements would apply to towns that already have begun the withdrawal process.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, asked lawmakers to include an exemption for Stowe, which is waiting for the State Board of Education to sign off on its exit from the Lamoille South Unified Union — a merger of the Stowe, Elmore and Morristown school districts.
“None of this language, for our particular situation, none of this would work,” Scheuermann said.
Olsen, of the State Board of Education, said the goal is not anti-independence. Rather, officials want to ensure school districts can be successful if they strike out on their own, he said.
“We want to make sure that there’s a good process that results in a good outcome,” Olsen said. “And that well-intentioned people don’t get themselves — and most importantly, their kids — into trouble.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Addison Central School District.
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