Tiny Vermont school district makes pitch for independence

Carolyn Partridge
Windham School Board Chairwoman Carolyn Partridge at the town’s elementary school. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

WINDHAM – Given the strong statewide push for school mergers, the town of Windham is an outlier in just about every way.

The mountaintop community’s elementary has just 14 students from kindergarten through grade six, yet still maintains an independent board and budget for a two-classroom school house. The district even runs its own bus and hires its own driver.

But school officials aren’t about to change that if they can help it. With the town having already rejected an Act 46 merger proposal, board members are preparing to lobby Vermont officials to leave Windham alone when a state education plan is issued in late 2018.

Their core argument is that Windham students get an excellent education because the district is so small, and the town can afford to keep it that way.

“The opportunities these kids have are second to none,” said Carolyn Partridge, Windham School Board chairwoman.

But Partridge also is a state legislator, so she knows the realities of school governance in Vermont. Asked about the odds that Windham can remain independent, she responded, “I have no idea.”

Act 46, approved by the state Legislature in 2015, presses for larger, consolidated school districts in an attempt to lower costs and equalize educational opportunities as Vermont’s school enrollment continues to drop.

Windham Elementary School
Windham Elementary School has just 14 students from kindergarten through grade six, but officials want the district to remain independently governed. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
Given the size and structural complexity of Windham Central Supervisory Union, officials passed on the most-accelerated merger option available under Act 46. Instead, they took time to come up with a “side-by-side” plan that went to a vote on Town Meeting Day in March.

One side of that merger involved the five towns that make up the Leland & Gray school union – Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham. Only Windham turned it down, and since the town was considered “advisable” to the merger plan, the formation of the new West River Modified Union Education District has proceeded.

The district held its first organizational meeting June 26. Residents ran through initial business like selecting a moderator, clerk and treasurer, and they set compensation for a board that includes a Windham representative for grades 7-12.

The West River district doesn’t start “full educational operations” until July 1, 2019. Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton said that gives residents and board members time to create a new, much larger school district.

“If we had to operate July 1, 2018, we’d be building a budget right now, instead of having time to figure out what it is we want to build,” Anton said.

But in Windham, school leaders are interested in building on what they already have.

The Windham board and the town’s Act 46 Study Committee are not currently pursuing any other merger options. Partridge said the plan is to submit an alternative proposal to the state in which Windham Elementary School would remain a self-governing entity.

Such a scenario is allowed under Act 46. At a recent meeting in Brattleboro, a Vermont Agency of Education official said districts that don’t plan to merge must give the state a “written explanation of how it is that what you’re proposing is the best thing for your students and your taxpayers” under the law.

If the state Board of Education doesn’t agree, districts can be forced to merge. But Partridge, who has served on the Windham board for about two decades, believes the district can make a convincing case.

“The reason I continue to serve is, I think the best investment we make in our future … is to educate our kids and make sure they get a great education,” Partridge said. “And I think part of that education needs to include parental involvement; involvement in extracurricular sports and activities; and as much enrichment as you can possibly get.”

In terms of education and enrichment, she argues that Windham’s size is an asset. One reason is that the two-classroom setup – one for K-3 and the other for grades 4-6 – allows for flexibility.

“If you’re a third-grader excelling in the primary room, you can move to the secondary room if the teacher can handle it and the quality of education is being maintained,” Partridge said.

The ready mix of students and adults of all ages is another big benefit, says parent Beth McDonald, who had a child in this year’s Windham Elementary graduating class.

“They’re really like a huge family,” McDonald said.

It’s fairly easy to pack that “family” into the school bus – or even into several cars – to regularly visit a farm, a pottery studio or a playhouse and get hands-on, real-world experience.

Parents and community members also visit the school; for instance, there are frequent artist residencies.

“A lot of these activities are the result of having a school board that’s really in touch with our community,” Partridge said. “And I think that’s the pitch we’re going to have to make to the state.”

The board’s involvement extends to the minutiae of transportation, as Windham officials meet every August to plan each bus stop.

A mural painted by Windham Elementary School students to celebrate the town’s bicentennial. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
That leads to another key argument for Windham – that the district is too isolated to merge. The school is positioned at the top of a long, steep hill, which makes Partridge concerned about safe travel in the winter.

“We’re talking about little kids here,” she said.

In the Act 46 merger plan that Windham voters rejected in March, there were no plans to close Windham Elementary and send its students elsewhere. But some fear that a larger, multi-town board won’t allocate enough funding to maintain the school, making it easier to close at some point in the future.

If that happens, Partridge said, “there’s no going back.”

While Windham’s student body is small, state figures show that the district’s enrollment has remained steady for nearly a decade. School officials believe that trend will continue, and Partridge said there are three incoming students to replace the three who graduated this year.

She also points out that Windham’s per-pupil spending is below the state’s penalty threshold. Windham’s budget is bolstered by a $40,000 small-school grant from the state, and Partridge said she’s going to argue that such support should continue based on the district’s geographic isolation and educational achievements.

At the same time, she points out that schools in Windham Central Supervisory Union – including Windham – already have been sharing classroom resources for years.

So, other than saving on the $750 salary for each of Windham’s school board members, Partridge argues that “there is not that much to be gained from consolidating governance.”

McDonald believes, however, that there would be much to lose. She notes the resistance of some Vermonters to allowing “big box stores” to set up shop in the state.

“And yet we are big-boxing our children and our school systems, but for what?” she asked. “Where do they go from here if there is no sense of place, community?”

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  • Tom Sullivan

    “The mountaintop community’s elementary has just 14 students from kindergarten through grade six”

    Just 14 kids? Map questing the distance from Wyndham elementary school to Jamaica village school is only 17 minutes with an estimated fuel cost of $1.00. The Windham elementary school will make a wonderful community center.

    • Margaret Maclean

      Tom kids don’t sleep at school they have a daily bus ride from home of 30-50 mins to get there, add the 17mins to get to the next nearest school and your talking up to 2 hours a day on a bus for a 5 year old. That’s why Windham was designated geographically isolated by the state back in 2011.

    • Kathleen Scott

      That trip “down the hill” (and back up again) is a lot longer during Winter and mud season, which begin earlier and end later up here. Our kids have a wonderful, nurturing environment that promotes a love of learning, the most essential part of education. The little ones learn to be part of their own community before moving on to a larger community after 6th grade. The so called “opportunities” of bigger is better would put more demands on parents to transport kids from after school activities or increased cost for late bus transportation. Maybe some of the folks weighing in should come to WES this upcoming year and see the environment in which these children thrive.

      • Tom Sullivan

        Hi Kathlee,

        I realize that you care for you’re school. But you have just 14 students, and according to VT Digger’s “cutting class”, the town of Wyndham in 2013-2014 had 17 students and 9 phantom students. Since then you lost 3 students. Also, what will Wyndham do when the phantom student provision gets phased out? Where do you draw that line?

        • Howard Ires

          There is no line. We are entitled to and obligated to provide a convenient school in our town, it is written into the Vermont Constitution.

          • Kathleen Scott

            Thanks Howie. I will say it again: come to WES and see for yourself what the school offers…let the students, current and former, speak to their experience. Take note of the number of WES students who have been leaders at L&G High School.

  • Kathleen Scott

    Windham School is very much for real. A fantastic education on a mountain with kids who excel at a cost that is stable. Our school is the heart of a great community and we will wo4k hard to maintain it.

  • Gary Murdock

    “Their core argument is that Windham students get an excellent education because the district is so small, and the town can afford to keep it that way.”
    Can they really afford to keep it that way without the re-distribution rebates funded by people that couldn’t find Windham on a map?

  • Tim Vincent

    That’s nice that they want to keep their little school.
    Let them pay for it – all of it.
    This is the kind of mess that Vermont’s convoluted and incomprehensible tax “system” has produced.
    Think about it:
    No other state finances K-12 education this way.

  • Scott Kay

    Really? With such a small population, and no big business, how is that possible?

  • John Grady,_Vermont

    Do the 328 people in town pay for the schools including high school ?
    150 households and they paid how much in school taxes ? Not some FAKE number, the actual post discount number ?

    No mention of the spending at the elementary school and if it’s so great every neighborhood should be entitled to the same for their children.

    Mini tax districts is another reason to have county schools districts. We can’t have an honest debate when it’s likely people will lie like crazy to protect their property values. Most people lie when they mention per pupil spending by using the FAKE equalized number.

    If a society wants to raise good kids the adults need to teach by setting a great example. Honesty, problem solving skills, being civil to others and being able to bite the bullet for the greater good.

    The ME Generation isn’t a good roll model so it’s evident the Greatest Generation who raised & educated them failed.

    50 million in poverty, half the kids getting free school lunches, trillions of dollars of debt, would qualify as failing when compared to a prosperous society. People will cling to a system that has failed 10’s of millions until it fails them and than suddenly say {{WE}} after decades of saying {{ I }}

    • Howard Ires

      Sir, we pay education tax in Vermont based on the PROPERTY VALUE of our Grand List, not the number of families residing in our town. I can assure you that the town of Windham pays far in excess TO the Education Fund than our town draws from it. We maintained schools here for over 200 years with no help from anyone, in accordance with the Vermont Constitution which states “a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town.” If you want to blame someone for our town having a school blame the framers of the Vermont Constitution. Now along comes the state to tell us that after 200 years our school, which we funded without complaint, is unaffordable. It is a sad state of affairs.

      • Peter Everett

        Just wish we got value for what we pay. Failing, substandard education is what we pay for right now. Costs rise, yet the quality stays low. Where else do we pay more each year for poor return on investment?

        • Howard Ires

          Vermont’s public schools are top rated.

          By what metric do you call them “failing?”

          • Peter Everett

            Top rated for failing systems throughout the country. Little or no improvement year after year, although more resources are put into the system. Compare U.S. to other countries, we lag far behind many developed countries in Math and Science. Too damn much time is spent on “social” crap rather than subject matter. Since when is it education’s duty educate in matters that belong to family? Education, in it’s present state, is a failing entity. Sorry you don’t believe so.
            A top rated system that is part of a failing system really isn’t worth a whole lot. By the way, I speak from experience, a 35 year public school teacher from the TOP system in the U.S. (Massachusetts). I fought, annually, with those in power (union). Mid 60’s saw the beginning of the decline that continues to this day.

      • John Grady

        Laws for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and
        immorality ought to be constantly kept in force, and duly executed; and a
        competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless
        the general assembly permits other provisions for the convenient
        instruction of youth.

        the general assembly permits other provisions”

        A school could be a 1 room school house for k-12 or less and busing to another town would fall under other provisions.

      • Tom Sullivan

        “We maintained schools here for over 200 years with no help from anyone”

        That’s incorrect, as Wyndham had received subsidies for 9 ghost students along with small school grants.

  • Peter Everett

    Since you asked, I Googled 2 websites. Please look at them for rankings, you may be surprised. The sites are: and rankingamerica.WordPress. com. Look them both over, let me know your feelings then. I really liked the one that ranked America 2nd, in ignorance, only behind Italy.
    My granddaughter is a Vermont student. If we didn’t require study at home on core subjects, without “opinion”, she would be way behind her cousins in MA. Education is far different than when you and I were students. Unfortunately lately, doesn’t mean it’s better, especially for what we’re forced to pay into it. Again, a top rated school in a failing system doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. It shouldn’t to you, either. My solution, government and parents wouldn’t allow it. It would put a whole lot more to educating vs parenting.

  • Scott Kay

    Yeah, I know what a gold town is…How bout a real answer to this???
    2017 budget $388,957.00

    14 students = $27,782 per student plus pension costs
    There is also the cost of sending kids to high school.
    The 150 families in town paid how much in school taxes ?

  • Anthony Redington

    The Town of Windham itself may end up as one of Vermont’s “ghost towns” as rural populations decline, remainder age–no reason to live in the country any more except to run a farm or maintain a wind turbine.