Wilmington and Whitingham consider school merger

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(Host) The towns of Wilmington and Whitingham have been talking about combining their high schools for decades. Now, with student populations declining, the issue is on the table again and voters will make their decision on Tuesday.

VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.

(Keese) Whitingham’s an isolated town in the steep hills near Vermont’s south-central border. It’s home to one of the state’s few remaining K through 12 schools. Its high school and middle school population is less than 70. The town of Wilmington, seven miles north, also has a combined high school and middle school. It serves about 240 students.

Marilyn Williams is the Whitingham principal. She says it’s tough to provide a comprehensive high school program for such a small number of students.

(Williams) “For example, we might offer a Spanish 3 class and there might only be four students in it. Well, one teacher to teach 85 minutes in a day might be wonderful for the kids, but it’s not cost effective. And in some ways it might not be wonderful for the kids because, although we don’t want large class size, four kids is not a lot of interaction amongst students.”

(Keese) Under the new proposal, students from both towns would go to middle school in Whitingham. The two towns’ older students would attend the high school in Wilmington.

The plan was hammered out over two years by representatives from both towns. Wilmington school board member John Conlon, who helped draft the plan says the decision should be easy, but it’s not.

(Conlon) “Because in most towns, and especially in small towns, the schools wind up being a center of community activity. And the community takes a lot of pride and identifies a lot with things that go on within the school, especially the sports programs.”

(Keese) Wilmington and Whitingham’s sports teams have been arch-rivals from time immemorial. Conlon says that by joining forces athletes from both schools would have better opportunities for competition. There could even be varsity and JV teams. You could still have small classes he says.

(Conlon) “And yet be able to offer these students electives in terms of math science, English. Expand certain programs like drama.”

(Keese) One of the most pressing issues in Wilmington is an outdated high school building. If the plan goes through, Whitingham would contribute some money to a new or renovated joint high school. The biggest benefit would come from the state. It’s part of an incentive program for containing costs. It’s built into Act 68 the state’s new education funding law. It offers increased construction aid for schools consolidating functions.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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