State Board of Ed. seems ready to free Ripton
RIPTON — Ripton’s request to withdraw from the Addison Central School District could be heard by the Vermont State Board of Education as soon as next month, and the leader of that panel said Ripton’s independence is all but assured if it can demonstrate its students will have viable preK-12 education options at their disposal.
John Carroll, chairman of the State Board of Education, provided a preview of the next steps Ripton will need to take in order to leave the ACSD as an avenue to maintaining its local school, while tuitioning its older students to the district it’s proposing to divorce.
During a lengthy interview with the Independent, Carroll also commented on the relative ease with which towns can exit voluntary school unions, the likelihood that other towns could follow Ripton’s lead in effort to keep their elementary schools open in face of declining enrollment, and the current impotence of Act 46 in preventing future dissolutions of the union districts that it so ardently promotes.
“If we find — and I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty finding — that Ripton has arrangement to have all the children go to proper schools, then, by law, we must approve the withdrawal,” Carroll said, referring to Tile 16, section 724 of Vermont State Statutes. “There’s very little place to exercise judgment. Either they meet this test, or they don’t.”
So it appears that Ripton has already done the heavy lifting in its withdrawal bid: It has voted to leave the district, and has prevailed upon a majority of voters in the six other ACSD towns to endorse its independence bid.
Carroll laid out what comes next for Ripton:
• It must wait for a 30-day period following the March 2 vote to ensure no one challenges the withdrawal referendum.
• When the 30 days lapse, the ACSD board can instruct its clerk to inform the Secretary of State’s Office of a valid vote.
• The Secretary of Education informs the State Board of the valid vote, and the board chairman places the Ripton withdrawal request on the panel’s agenda.
The board of education meets monthly, though it also convenes for special reasons. Carroll told the Independent he believes he’ll be able to get Ripton’s request on the board’s April meeting agenda, though it’s unlikely the group would render its decision after one gathering. There’s no mandatory timeline for the state board to render its decision; customarily, it will convene a second hearing, after which a vote is taken on the issue.
Carroll said there’ll be no restrictions on who can and can’t testify at the state board’s meeting on Ripton.
“We would invite the representatives of Ripton to come and present,” he said. “We would also want anyone with an interest in the matter to come. We would certainly want to hear from the other (ACSD) communities, and the district folks.”
Again, the board’s decision on Ripton won’t be subjective.
“Section 724 pretty well sets out the sequence of decisions that the board must make, and on what grounds it can make those decision,” Carroll said.
He explained, first and foremost, the panel will have to “determine that the students in the town of Ripton have recognized schools they can go to that meet the state’s educational quality standards.
“Their effort to withdraw is pretty much an automatic, in the sense that all you have to do is demonstrate you have schools where your kids can go,” he added. “Most towns have already figured that out before they go through the withdrawal process.”
If the board is satisfied Ripton has made proper educational provisions for its kids, the State Board declares the pre-existing Ripton school district will be reconstituted.
Then it becomes the Ripton selectboard’s job to re-establish the local school district.
Longtime Ripton selectboard member Laurie Cox said her community has already done some legwork. It was after Ripton’s Jan. 12 independence vote that the selectboard invited local residents to begin the planning process for a possible withdrawal.
“Many people stepped forward, and the selectboard named six of them to serve as the lead ‘executive’ committee, with myself serving with them as the liaison for the selectboard,” she said in an email. “The plan is to include all the people who volunteered to be on various sub-committees now that we have moved further along in the process. In fact, they are being surveyed this week as to their areas of interest or skills. This group includes about 30 people.”
Earlier this month, the selectboard voted to retain the services of an attorney specializing in state education law. He and the town attorney will help represent the town’s interests going forward. Others who will speak up for Lincoln include Joanna Doria, Emily Hoyler, Wendy Leeds, Jane Phinney (former Ripton Elementary School teacher and principal), John Wetzel, Molly Witters, and Cox.
• Once the State Board makes its decision on Ripton, it must then find that it’s in the “best interest of the state” that the ACSD either continue to exist, or should be abolished. Carroll said abolition of the ACSD would be highly unlikely if the remaining six towns (Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge) want to continue their affiliation.
• Lastly, the state board would determine the appropriate union district with which to affiliate Ripton.
There are two choices — to either affiliate Ripton with the ACSD (as a marriage between to distinct entities) — or have it form an alliance with a different union school district.
If set free, Ripton will have to settle any debts with the ACSD and its member towns. It would regain ownership of its local school building, and begin the process of hiring staff and contracting for special education and other services that go into the operation of a school district.
According to statute, “the State Board may declare the unified union school district dissolved as of July 1 immediately following or as soon thereafter as each remaining town’s or city’s obligations have been satisfied, or it may declare that the unified union district shall continue to exist despite the withdrawal of the former town or city member.”
Carroll acknowledged it might be a stretch for Ripton to finalize its separation and be ready to go it alone for the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year.
“It takes a while to constitute a new school district,” he said. “The speed by which it gets implemented is up to the towns and the district.”
Ripton voters on March 2 voted on a 2021-2022 ACSD budget that includes Ripton’s education expenses for the coming year.
TOO EASY TO EXIT?
Some past and present education officials believe Vermont laws should offer a more rigorous test for communities proposing to leave their school districts. Carroll specifically cited Act 46, the state’s school governance consolidation law.
“Act 46 created a bunch of voluntary marriages and a few shotgun marriages, but it was all under the rubric of efficiency and expanding education opportunities for children,” Carroll said. “None of those standards apply to divorcing.”
He qualified that state law doesn’t include exit provisions for the relatively few towns that were forced to merge with a school district.
Carroll noted Ripton is entering rarified air, in that few other Vermont communities have thus far chosen to leave a union school district. Last October, the town of Halifax was granted independence from a school district it had created with Readsboro. But Carroll noted the two towns had voluntarily entered into that union and were in agreement it wasn’t working out.
The Halifax case rang a warning bell for some on the State Board about the low threshold for fracturing voluntary school districts.
“Many of us thought it was a pretty low bar,” Carroll said. “There was no talk about whether it was consistent with what Act 46 had in mind. After the Halifax experience, we communicated with the General Assembly and to the chairs of the committees there, and said, ‘You might want to take a look at this, because you all put a whole lot of effort into merging districts, and you had a bunch of guiding principles (in Act 46), and none of those guiding principles are applying to divorces.’”
Carroll believes other communities might follow Ripton’s lead if they, too, feel the importance of keeping their local schools open overrides the benefits of being part of the district.
“Many of these new union districts didn’t want to rush right into closing schools, but many have adopted five-year plans that involve school closings,” Carroll said. “You may see more of these. And if it’s a voluntarily merged school district — which the vast majority of them are — the law at the moment sets a very low hurdle.”
Ultimately, it might take what Carroll called “a rush to the courthouse” to get the Legislature to conclude, “Wait a minute; we wanted these districts to stay together, we’re not happy about these divorces.”
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, is a member of the House Education Committee. He acknowledged Carroll’s concerns.
“Yes, Act 46 was focused on unifying districts and did not really speak to so-called divorces, leaving the state board to look at the rules that existed before Act 46 when, for example, a town might leave a union high school in order to become a choice town,” he said. “I think at a minimum, the state board should require towns looking to leave a unified district to show how their new arrangements meet the goals of Act 46, especially around equity, opportunity, quality and taxpayer value.”
JURY IS OUT ON ACT 46
Former Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, was one of the architects of Act 46.
He believes Carroll has a point.
“I think Mr. Carroll is right to the extent I recall the legislation,” he said. “I don’t recall any mention in it of divorce proceedings for schools to get out of supervisory unions; that’s covered in Vermont statute.
“I think the precedent has been set,” he added. “I think it would be difficult for the state board to reject Ripton’s request.”
Sharpe is concerned about the prospect of seeing other unions dissolve because residents don’t want to lose local schools and quality education close to home.
“We see small, relatively well-to-do communities — that place a high value on education and a willingness to pay taxes to educate our children — feeling constrained by the demographic challenges that school districts are facing, along with the penalties the state is imposing on an unrealistically low high-spending threshold,” he said. “The confluence of these pressures are forcing school districts to close community schools. Our hope in enacting Act 46 was the larger family would actually enable small schools to persevere and stay open.”
Sharpe is concerned that Act 46 hasn’t thus far lived up to the expectations of its drafters.
“Our notion was that these (unions) were going to work,” Sharpe said. “I think it’ll be a decade, but I think I might be an unhappy camper by the time I get to be an old man, in terms of what we did with Act 46 and whether it was the right thing to do. I wish we could find the money to educate our kids.”
For now, all eyes are on Ripton. The ACSD board is slated to meet on Monday, March 22, to discuss testimony before the State Board.
It doesn’t appear as though there will be an acrimonious split, according to ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows.
“All six towns resoundingly voted to let Ripton go and honor the town's desire to withdraw,” Burrows said. “I believe our voters voted the way they did because they respected Ripton’s desire to be part of a different governance structure. It would run counter to the understanding our citizens had on Town Meeting Day when they voted to let Ripton go for the State Board of Education to then require ACSD to change its governance structure to recreate a supervisory union. This would increase costs to the other six ACSD towns and impact the significant progress we’ve made as a single distinct. I therefore believe that the State Board of Education should assign Ripton to an adjoining supervisory union that is already established rather than creating a complex governance model in ACSD that would negatively impact our district and our students.”
Joanna Doria is a Ripton parent who has been lobbying for the town’s educational independence.
“The vote on Town Meeting Day launched us into uncharted territory, and we are taking this transition phase one step at a time,” she said. “We have heard from John Carroll, who very eloquently explained the position the State Board of Education is in, and we have met with Superintendent Burrows who was very generous with his time and expertise. No longer in the middle of a political battle, as a parent, I find myself grateful for the opportunity to begin work with other parents and community members as we consider the road ahead for our kids and our town.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com