Whitingham and Wilmington debate school merger

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(Host) Two-plus years after combining their high schools and middle schools, Whitingham and Wilmington are still debating the merger.

Some residents are petitioning for a vote to dissolve the joint contract. Others are looking to bring in more towns in an even stronger consolidation.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) The two school districts had discussed merging for decades. It was shrinking enrollments that turned the tide.

In 2003, when voters approved their joint contract, Whitingham had just over 60 high schoolers in its relatively new K through 12 school. Wilmington had 130 in the top four grades of its aging high school-middle school.

The contract created the new Twin Valley School district. Middle schoolers from both towns were sent to Whitingham. High school students went to Wilmington’s newly named Twin Valley High School.

Ed Metcalfe of Whitingham chairs the Twin Valley Board. He considers the merger a success.

(Metcalfe) “There are more course offerings, than they had in either system. There was this big apprehension that there was going to be some kind of cultural clash between two former rivals. And from what we hear the kids think it’s great.”

(Keese) Sherry Adams says that’s a matter of opinion.

(Adams) “We also hear opinions from parents saying their children are not getting the classes they were promised, they’re not happy there.”

(Keese) Adams lives in Whitingham. She’s the leader of a group that’s drafting a petition to dissolve the Twin Valley District.

The group wants Whitingham to reclaim its middle school and tuition out the upper grades to any of several nearby high schools.

(Adams) “I can’t believe it wouldn’t be cheaper, just from the preliminary things we’ve seen.”

(Keese) Metcalfe, the joint board chairman, says the merger has saved money, even though a better education was its main goal. He blames the rising tax bills in both towns on the state education funding formula.

Metcalfe also points out that under the contract, neither town can pull out for five years without the other’s approval. He says Wilmington is unlikely to grant that.

Critics claim that’s because Wilmington’s high school needs help paying for much-needed repairs. Last year the joint board floated a proposal for a new, $17 million dollar high school. The bond was soundly defeated.

The board is now considering 12 different options for dealing with the aging high school’s problems. One that’s getting a lot of attention is the formation of a union school district that would involve even more towns.

(Wright) “Because we’re looking at how effective the collaborative is. We feel it’s very effective, we feel it’s worth exploring whether other communities should be involved.”

(Keese) Peter Wright is the superintendent of the Windham Northwest Supervisory Union. He says the district has asked the Vermont School Boards Association to study the issue.

(Wright) “It is not predestined to be a union school district necessarily. It’s an exploration.”

(Keese) Wright says a union district would be a harder to form, and harder to get out of than the current joint contract. Already bumper stickers are appearing that say No Union District.’

The joint Board hopes to have a referendum on its options late this fall or in early spring.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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