Starksboro is the latest Addison County town to attempt to withdraw from its school district. On March 16, the Starksboro branch of the statewide group Save Our Schools began circulating a petition to force a town-wide vote about withdrawing from the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD), according to an article in The Addison County Independent.
Save Our Schools’ website describes the group as a “grassroots movement to uplift small town voices as it pertains to the education of our towns’ children and the wellbeing of its citizens.”
The petition gathered enough signatures to force a vote that will take place in May. Save Our Schools’ first effort was focused on Ripton’s withdrawal from the Addison Central School District.
According to Herb Olson, a member of Starksboro Save Our Schools, watching the Ripton withdrawal process was helpful for advocates in Starksboro. “They were dealing with some of these same issues,” he said.
Save Our Schools advocates are primarily worried about the potential closure of Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro, according to an article in The Addison Independent. These fears have been augmented by the creation of a committee to study a potential merger with the Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD).
Olson said part of his worry about the possible MAUSD-ANWSD merger was that the recommendations of the state merger committee would not go back to the elected school boards in both districts.
Per the petition, any already-in-motion withdrawal process, after approval by Starksboro voters, could be terminated by the town’s Selectboard. That only applies, though, if either the ANWSD-MAUSD merger does not occur, or if the merger includes language that prevents the closure of an elementary school without approval of that town’s voters.
Others, such as Patrick Reen, the superintendent of MAUSD, are in support of a merger.
“It seems clear to me that a merger offers the greatest chance of both communities offering the kind of programming and support we want to our students at a cost taxpayers can afford,” Reen wrote in a statement to The Campus.
Another concern for Starksboro residents is the passage of H. 727 by the Vermont State House of Representatives. Broadly, the bill places more power over school district composition in the hands of the state, which already controls the majority of school funding.
Save Our Schools advocates said the bill would effectively remove local control of school districts.
“It's an abomination,” Olson said, referring to H. 727. “We're going to have a [withdrawal] vote on this sometime in May. Under the terms of the bill, that vote would have been wiped out.”
If it were to pass the Senate and be signed by Governor Phil Scott, H. 727 would take effect on July 1, prior to the earliest date that the Starksboro withdrawal process could finish. As a result, Starksboro’s withdrawal would be forced to undergo the processes laid out in the bill.
The town of Lincoln voted to withdraw from MAUSD on August 24, 2021, and thus would be grandfathered in to the new bill.
The bill has yet to pass the Senate and be signed into law by Scott.
State funding in Vermont is deeply tied to average daily pupil attendance. As a result, Reen explained, MAUSD might be forced to slightly raise tax rates if Starksboro withdrew. However, a MAUSD merger with ANWSD would likely increase the cost efficiency of the provision of public education.
Operating as an independent district would bring a set of new challenges to Starksboro. “If Starksboro were to withdraw and were to operate as a standalone district, I think they would find it very difficult to provide a high quality education at a cost the taxpayers could afford,” Reen wrote.
Oliver Olsen, a member of the Vermont State Board of Education, told The Campus that for a withdrawal to officially take place, even with a positive vote by residents of Starksboro, the Board would need to determine the students of the withdrawing community would be educated in a school in compliance with State Board rules.
The financial ramifications remain unclear, as the study focusing on the merger has yet to result in any changes to existing school funding legislation.
In addition to the fiscal effects of any district changes, removing students from a school district in which they would eventually matriculate Starksboro elementary schoolers might still attend middle school in MAUSD can lead to educational differences — in this case, Starksboro elementary schoolers might still attend middle school in MAUSD.
“Programmatically, if Starksboro withdraws, it is possible that students from Starksboro who attend Mt. Abe will have had a different educational experience than students in MAUSD schools,which could have some implications when they matriculate to middle school,” Reen said.
According to Olson, “[the withdrawal issue] is about how boards treat their communities.” He said he believes that the disconnect between school boards and state officials has recently increased.
Per The Addison Independent, nearly two thirds of eligible Lincoln voters participated in the vote on whether or not to withdraw from MAUSD. The withdrawal option won by a large margin, 525-172.
Amy McGlashan, an advocate against Ripton’s withdrawal in early 2021, expressed that it was likely that Starksboro would vote to withdraw from their school district.
“There’s no real active opposition,” said McGlashan. Advocates for withdrawals tend to be very actively engaged in a campaign for the changes that they seek, while there is no strong active support or campaign for maintaining the status quo, she explained
McGlashan was unseated by Joanna Doria who ran on a pro-town-control platform in an election on March 3.Despite certain obstacles, Olson emphasized that Save Our Schools plans on rolling out more information ahead of the election scheduled for May.
“We’re confident,” he said.