Split vote on unified districts a sign Act 46 is working, Smith says

Speaker of the House Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, addresses his constituents at the Elmore Town Meeting on Tuesday, where the town voted to enter into a merger study with the Morristown School District.

Speaker of the House Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, addresses his constituents at the Elmore Town Meeting this year. File photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

Votes on the first school district mergers are in and the results tell a tale of two counties. Voters in Chittenden County overwhelmingly approved the direction Act 46 has taken by saying yes to the unification of school districts Essex Town and Essex Junction with the formerly choice school district of Westford.

In Lamoille County, a merger vote that would have brought together the Elmore and Morristown school districts was derailed by voters who even when faced with a spike in taxes did not want to give up school choice by combining districts.

“Today was an important test for Vermont’s new education reform law,” said Speaker of the House Shap Smith, a Morristown Democrat who is running for governor. “Residents of Essex Junction, Essex Town and Westford voted to become the first towns to create an expanded school district under Act 46.”

Essex Town residents voted 1,154 to 183 in favor of the planned merger Tuesday. In Essex Junction, 1,000 community members approved it while 123 voted against it. And in Westford, which had to give up high school choice, 422 voters came out in favor while 207 did not.

“We are elated at the overwhelming response and we feel like the community has given us a clear mandate to carry out the possibilities and opportunities that we think are there. Now, the hard work begins,” said Brendan Kinney, chair of the study committee that brought the plan to voters.

Not too long ago these same Chittenden communities rejected unification. But merging was already on the minds of community members when Act 46 came along. At first, the current study committee came together around creating a Regional Education District, or RED.

“Even without Act 46 we would see a cost savings by creating a unified district and we could potentially deliver better educational opportunities and experiences for students,” said Kinney.

It is just this kind of dedicated, hard work over time that brings about success, according to Smith.

“They continued to work at it and address the communities’ concerns and now they have success the second time around,” Smith told VTDigger.org. Tuesday’s vote shows that “with the right amount of time and the right amount of work these mergers are going to be successful,” he added.

In Lamoille, where Elmore residents fretted over giving up high school choice the vote came out 197 against to 164 in favor. The vote in Smith’s hometown of Morristown was in favor, but not by much, 251-247.

The Elmore and Morristown vote reflects the spirit of the new education law exactly because the voters came out and decided “no,” Smith said. “I think we should celebrate yesterday’s vote outcomes as proof that Act 46 is working as intended.”

Stuart Weppler, co-chair of the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union study committee that presented the merger plan to the two communities, was bewildered by the decision to significantly raise taxes in order to preserve school choice.

“The school boards recommended a course of action that took into account all these variables but the majority of the people in town exercised their right to vote and said that school choice is more important. But no one has authored an alternative direction and taxes are going to go up by 40 cents in March. I’m not sure people realize the ramifications of the vote they just had,” Weppler said.

School taxes are expected to go up from $1.68 per $100 of property value to $2.04 because they will have maximized the threshold for spending and will have to pay a penalty, according to Weppler, who also sits on the Elmore School Board. “It ends up being over 100 percent increase on our education tax over a five-year period.”

Lamoille towns will still be required to merge into larger districts under Act 46. Elmore and Morristown will have to find new dance partners to comply with the law or if they wait too long the state will decide for them. Knowing this and considering the local landscape, the school board members of both towns thought unification was a good plan.

“If we had another option we would have been presenting it. So, those people in favor of school choice are going to have to step up to the plate now and come up with a viable alternative – or we wait until 2019 and the state will tell us what we are going to do,” Weppler said.

Elmore School, believed to be the last one-room schoolhouse in operation in the state of Vermont.

Elmore School, believed to be the last one-room schoolhouse in operation in the state of Vermont.

Lamoille South Supervisory Union Superintendent Tracy Wend believes that these communities will find another way because they are deeply committed to their children.

“This is difficult but not divisive. The community really will continue to work together,” she said, adding that the large turnout at the polls shows how much people care and are committed to their shared responsibility for public education.

Weppler remains concerned for the retirees in town who can’t afford a hike in taxes.

“They are going to have to move out of town. The people in favor of choice were well-organized and I guess more determined,” he added.

Wrend said she understands what older residents are facing and said it highlights how difficult this issue is for a number of stakeholders.

“One of the most poignant moments for me, was when an older couple took me by the hand and said they were concerned that they couldn’t stay in Elmore” because the taxes were making it too expensive. “I think this is illustrative of the hard choices that we are grappling with and the way we pay for, govern and deliver public education effectively,” she said.

School choice was also an issue in the Chittenden Central merger. Westford had to give up choice at the high school level for the merger to happen. The majority of Westford students already chose to go to Essex High School, but after 2020 they will all graduate from there. Westford community members also gained the right to have a say in the budget for the high school for the first time.

“We were probably the most concerned about how the vote would turn out in Westford,” admitted Kinney, who found it surprising that almost two-thirds of that community voted in favor of uniting.

Kinney said that the study committee tackled the choice issue early on in the process which gave him confidence that Westford would likely be on board. What concerned him more was the misinformation about the unification plan that was circulating as the vote neared.

“It was difficult to stay on top of making sure all the facts were out there as more and more people engaged in the question as we came closer to the vote. We worked really hard up to the last minute to make sure that everyone had the facts,” Kinney said. “It clearly resonated with voters.”

The Essex Town, Essex Junction, Westford merger will be the first on the accelerated path set out by Act 46. As school boards around the state hunker down to work on a way forward, Kinney says to be very clear as to what issues relate to the study committee, “get the stakeholders involved early and get all the issues on the table. And be respectful of the fact that different communities may have different concerns as it relates to unification.”

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • Keith Stern

    Do we really have competent leadership in Vermont? I haven’t seen it yet and Act 46 is just another example of that.

  • Jamie Carter

    Smith is right on this…. Act 46 is working as intended. The question is what was the intent?

    I think this sums it up pretty well

    “They are going to have to move out of town. The people in favor of choice were well-organized and I guess more determined,”

    Act 46 was designed and intended to pit towns against each other, you either harm older people or give up your choice or get a 40c tax increase…

    The Essex unification went through because residents were told it would save hundreds of 1000’s of dollars. Of course the savings don’t seem to add up, but most residents aren’t going to pull out a calculator, they believe what the people in charge tell them, whether or not there is a predetermined outcome of what they want for a vote.

    “and taxes are going to go up by 40 cents in March. I’m not sure people realize the ramifications of the vote they just had,” Weppler said.”

    Now this is what should be concerning and what should be addressed by the Legislature and Gov. Why are taxes going up 40c in March if schools don’t merge. Why are older people on fixed incomes being forced to move because they can no longer afford huge increases year after year? I think the answer is clearly the Legislature doesn’t have the guts to make a bold move to transform our education system, they can barely muster the will to tweak things.

  • James Mason

    Elmore voters were presented with true facts regarding the school closing. Westford voters were given misleading statements, comforting but meaningless platitudes, and inaccurate numbers.

  • Elinor Peters

    Elmore voters who attended the oct.28 meeting were presented with the facts. Unfortunately they and others were mailed an unsigned and untrue flyer saying taxes would not rise if they voted “No”. Many did not realize what a mistake they have made by voting “no”.

  • Peter Everett

    I really have too laugh (if I don’t , I’ll probably cry). My property taxes went up over $1,500.00 this year. Jumping from $1.68 to $2.04 as my neighbor stated, with raise them another, roughly, $1,800.00. How the hell can anyone, of average income (I’m a retired public school teacher), continue to live in this state?
    These nitwits, in their esteemed wisdom, are doing their best to make Vermont the least populated state in the nation. Why are the young, those raising families, elderly seeking residence in other places? Could it possibly be the economic policies originating in Montpelier?
    Think about this for a minute. Each year the budget increases greater than incoming revenue, resulting in cuts, or raising taxes. Taxpayers see Little growth in their income, yet, Montpelier enters their pockets taking more from the taxpayer, leaving them less for their needs. This continues year after year, no stop in sight.
    People want out of here, many willing to take pennies on the dollar for their homes, just to leave. Problem is…no one is buying these homes, unless there is wealth to do so. Average priced homes are staying on the market longer, more and more homes are for sale. Just look around you. People have reached the breaking point…They can no longer absorb the rising costs to live in Vermont.
    The social programs are killing the working residents, while those receiving government assistance, if they utilize them all, can do quite well (cash payments, food stamps, rent/fuel assistance, healthcare, daycare, etc, etc). If added up, some can be in the mid “40’s” or higher bracket…all of which is Tax Free. Maybe this is why some say “why work”. Workers get frustrated because they see this trend growing. This something for nothing attitude is growing rapidly. Hell, my parents never would have demanded this from government. I’m sure that most others parents had the same mental attitude. People are lacking personal pride. People want “freebies” instead of earning them. They’re “entitled” all this. Shame on many of them. There are those that really need help, and they’re being categorized with the Leisure Class. That isn’t right. Time the taxpayer says it’s enough. The only way taxes will slow down is at the ballot box. Keep the same old in office, expect to see more of their income stolen from them. Waste in government is rampart. After all, it’s not their money. Why care?
    I know I can’t afford this rapid rise, yet, my home won’t sell for what I paid for it. What idiot would pay my “break even” cost for a home?. Answer…no one because of tax issues. I’m stuck. I know it, as does Montpelier. Do they care? Not one bit. They said they heard the voter last November. Yeah, right!!! They heard, but, they didn’t care. Expect to continue to see your taxes increase with the same old ones in office. Your choice, done complain if you keep them there. They forgotten important thing…They work for us, not the other way around. Time we remind them by removing them.
    Fool me once

  • Peter Everett

    I really have too laugh (if I don’t , I’ll probably cry). My property taxes went up over $1,500.00 this year. Jumping from $1.68 to $2.04 as my neighbor stated, with raise them another, roughly, $1,800.00. How the hell can anyone, of average income (I’m a retired public school teacher), continue to live in this state?
    These nitwits in Montpelier, in their esteemed wisdom, are doing their best to make Vermont the least populated state in the nation. Why are the young, those raising families, elderly seeking residence in other places? Could it possibly be the economic policies originating in Montpelier?
    Think about this for a minute. Each year the budget increases greater than incoming revenue, resulting in cuts, or raising taxes. Taxpayers see Little growth in their income, yet, Montpelier enters their pockets taking more from the taxpayer, leaving them less for their needs. This continues year after year, no stop in sight.
    People want out of here, many willing to take pennies on the dollar for their homes, just to leave. Problem is…no one is buying these homes, unless there is wealth to do so. Average priced homes are staying on the market longer, more and more homes are for sale. Just look around you. People have reached the breaking point…They can no longer absorb the rising costs to live in Vermont.
    The social programs are killing the working residents, while those receiving government assistance, if they utilize them all, can do quite well (cash payments, food stamps, rent/fuel assistance, healthcare, daycare, etc, etc). If added up, some can be in the mid “40’s” or higher bracket…all of which is Tax Free. Maybe this is why some say “why work”. Workers get frustrated because they see this trend growing. This something for nothing attitude is growing rapidly. Hell, my parents never would have demanded this from government. I’m sure that most others parents had the same mental attitude. People are lacking personal pride. People want “freebies” instead of earning them. They’re “entitled” all this. Shame on many of them. There are those that really need help, and they’re being categorized with the Leisure Class. That isn’t right. Time the taxpayer says it’s enough. The only way taxes will slow down is at the ballot box. Keep the same old in office, expect to see more of their income stolen from them. Waste in government is rampart. After all, it’s not their money. Why care?
    I know I can’t afford this rapid rise, yet, my home won’t sell for what I paid for it. What idiot would pay my “break even” cost for a home?. Answer…no one because of tax issues. I’m stuck. I know it, as does Montpelier. Do they care? Not one bit. They said they heard the voter last November. Yeah, right!!! They heard, but, they didn’t care. Expect to continue to see your taxes increase with the same old ones in office. Your choice, don’t complain if you keep them there. They’ve forgotten one important thing…They work for us, not the other way around. Time we remind them by removing them.
    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

    • Randy Jorgensen

      ” I really have too laugh (if I don’t , I’ll probably cry). My property taxes went up over $1,500.00 this year. Jumping from $1.68 to $2.04 as my neighbor stated, with raise them another, roughly, $1,800.00. How the hell can anyone, of average income (I’m a retired public school teacher), continue to live in this state?
      These nitwits in Montpelier, in their esteemed wisdom, are doing their best to make Vermont the least populated state in the nation. Why are the young, those raising families, elderly seeking residence in other places? Could it possibly be the economic policies originating in Montpelier?”

      Peter, my family fits into the young, raising families category. We can’t afford to live in this state any longer with the ever increasing taxes and paying student debt off. We are actively looking to relocate next summer to a more affordable state. My property taxes have gone up ~25% in the past 4 years.

      In regards to abuse of social programs I witnessed it twice in the past two months. Both by food stamp recipients.

      While in the super market I had just balked at the price of beef at the local super market, cube steak was 5.99/lb! I settled on a “going out of code” special on a roast that was reduced $3.00. I finished my shopping went to the check out line as usual. In front of me, in line was a couple with a fair amount groceries. They put two T-bones on the belt to be rung up, probably $30/package. The wife or significant other then asked the gentleman “You brought the EBT card right”. I was stunned. I almost asked if I was invited to dinner. Here I was buying nearly out of date meat and these folks just dropped $60 of my tax money on T-bones!

      The other incident at the same store. I saw a fellow come out into the parking lot with a lot of soda, especially for one person. He met up with a fellow in the parking lot and together they loaded the soda in the back of the car, the fellow waiting in the lot gave the shopper a sum of money and then drove off. The soda purchaser proceeded to go back into the market and came out with two cartons of smokes!

      You right, why “work” anymore when you can work the system.

  • Peter Everett

    Just read in today’s (11/6) Boston Globe that Vermont is in the top 6 states for total tax assessment. Isn’t that great!!!
    Come on Legislature, shoot for #1. You believe the taxpayer can afford all your foolish programs. Go for it!!! Carbon Tax, why stop at $.88, Raise Income Tax, Sales Tax, Gas Tax, Property Tax, etc. You know you want to be #1. You know that driving residents out of state is a priority (want to make VT the least populated state in the country).
    You know that to attain your goals, you need more Taxpayer funds. Do it. You know you want to!!!!

  • Deborah Dailey

    The votes are in. Essex Town, Essex Junction, and Westford will merge. Elmore and Morristown will not. Now we will have the opportunity to compare the true, long-term effects on taxes as well as issues such as school choice, local control, and closing of schools that have concerned voters. It will be interesting to see what things look like, not so much next year, but five, six, seven years from now. Forced school mergers will not solve our rising tax problem, but unfortunately it will take time for many voters to realize this. Our legislators in Montpelier need to be reminded that they work for us, and stop the runaway spending that is the real cause of high taxes. The state will be providing generous incentives to towns who decide to merge early. Where will the money for those incentives be coming from? Our taxes of course!

  • Peter Everett

    My property taxes increased approximately $1,500.00 this year. According to Mr Smith I will see them rise from $1.68 to $2.04 per $100.00 next year. That means I’m going to see another minor increase of roughly $1,800.00 next year. Act 46 working? $1,800.00 increase!!! How the hell can Act 46 be working? Roughly, $3,300.00 increase in 2 years? On a 3 bedroom ranch home? If that is how it’s supposed to work, maybe it will be only another 2 – 3 years before the town will take the house from me, for lack of tax payment. Hell, no one will ever buy my home with increases like this.
    A retired teacher I am. Not a wealthy trust fund baby, not independently wealthy. Rather, a frugal Yankee who put aside extra money, from working second and third jobs, to be able to buy his “dream house”. Unfortunately, the “dream” is rapidly becoming a “nightmare”.
    If this is the best that those in Montpelier can go to “slow” the rate of property tax growth, I would hate to see what other plans would do.
    Time to elect those who will truly put an effort into changing the old paying system. Those in power now aren’t doing the job properly.
    They have to be told that government cannot afford to “do everything for everyone”. The financial resources just don’t exist in a state with a population this small, especially when the state relies on low paying service rated jobs.
    We, the people, have to give up a bit of the beauty of the State to attract good paying jobs. We can’t always have our cake and eat it, too. We must bite the bullet to attract strong financial growth. If we don’t, there will be no one left to pay the bill. We’ll all take the loss and move from here. That time may be rapidly approaching. I wish it wasn’t that way, though.

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