Business & Economy

Employees buy Montpelier school, now largest worker-owned coop in Vt.

Students from the Montpelier New School play on Vermont College of Fine Arts' green. Courtesy of The New School.

Students from the Montpelier New School play on Vermont College of Fine Arts’ green. Courtesy of The New School.

The New School of Montpelier is now an employee-owned cooperative.

Employees recently purchased the school from Susan Kimmerly who founded the school in 2005.

The New School serves students with disabilities, primarily children and young adults, ages 6 to 22, with autism, cognitive disabilities and challenging behaviors often related to trauma.

The 10-year-old private school is now the largest worker cooperative in Vermont.

The process of transitioning from a privately held company to a worker cooperative began about three years ago, Kimmerly said, when the Vermont Employee Ownership Center was invited to a staff meeting.

Kimmerly said the cooperative concept was part of her exit strategy, and at first staff were worried about the idea.

“They were kind of like ‘Whoa, this is scary, what do you mean things could change?’ There were one or two people who said, ‘This is cool,’ and were the champions,” Kimmerly said.

An education committee was put in place to help staff understand what a cooperative model would look like, and a steering committee was formed to deal with nuts-and-bolts issues, such as financing and bylaw changes, Kimmerly said.

A few times, straw votes were taken on whether employees wanted to proceed.

Board member Mary Creeden said “99 percent of the people said, ‘Keep going, we want us to do this.’ There was a lot of excitement about becoming a worker-owner cooperative. As soon as the deal was done, people were right in there signing up to become worker-owners; it’s a good feeling.”

Twenty-four people are now member-owners, and longevity of service was a requirement to buy in. The staff is made up of 35 to 40 people in total.

At the time of the purchase, employees who had worked for one year could become owner-workers. New hires need to work at the school for two years before they can buy in.

The agreed-upon purchase price will not be made public.

Kimmerly has offered to stay through June of 2016. She is leaving to devote time to a second company she founded, Nine East Network, which provides speech, language and hearing services.

The New School of Montpelier, located at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Photo courtesy of teh school.

The New School of Montpelier, located at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Photo courtesy of teh school.

The employee purchase of the school was finalized at the end of March. Financing was secured through a collaboration between the Cooperative Fund of New England, the Vermont Employee Ownership Center’s loan fund and the Vermont Economic Development Authority, according to the news release.

Creeden, the board member, said the change to employee ownership “seems to have helped us build a new sense of community.”

“It’s been going on a long time,” Creeden said Thursday. “It was almost unbelievable that we were actually able to purchase the school. It was a lot of work.”

Another worker owner, Eric Weeber, said the move has “stabilized the school’s future, and staff retention has improved.”

“It has also markedly broadened the staff’s perspectives about the school community,” said Weeber in the announcement.

Matthew Cropp, program and outreach coordinator for VEOC, said there are a dozen worker co-ops in Vermont, there has been an “uptick in interest” in the past few years.

“We’re in the midst of a wave of Baby Boomer business owners looking at retirement options, and selling to the employees is being increasingly seen as an attractive path, especially as the financing and professional infrastructure has become more familiar and comfortable with the worker co-op model,” Cropp said.

The New School was started as an offshoot of The St. Francis Foundation, a developmental services organization in Middlesex, which provides homes for students with severe disabilities.

At the time, the foundation also was running a day program, and Kimmerly moved that program to Montpelier.

Kimmerly had worked previously for the Agency of Education and in private schools. The New School operates in leased space at the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus.

“The campus green is like our playground,” said Kimmerly.

While the population has changed over the years, she said, programs are based on the needs of local schools. The New School has developed autism programs and programs for younger children who have experienced trauma.

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Amy Ash Nixon

About Amy Ash

Nixon has been a reporter in New England since 1986. She most recently worked for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Previously, Amy covered communities in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom for The Caledonian-Record. She spent the bulk of her career as a reporter for The Hartford Courant in Connecticut. Nixon also taught middle school language arts in Connecticut for several years.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Amy Ash on Twitter @vegnixon

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